All posts by Gordon Maples

Writer of the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog and the (Plot)opsy Podcast. A bad movie expert, if there ever was such a thing. Movie nerd, professional organizer, and political progressive.

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.

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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.

 

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t

In the spirit of the season, today I am going to take a look at the infamous 1966 holiday movie, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.

The plot of The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Santa has to get a job as Santa to earn money to pay his overdue rent bill.

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t was co-written and directed by the Italian actor Rossano Brazzi, who appeared in movies like The Italian Job, Final Justice, and South Pacific. However, his directing credits were very limited, and is best remembered for his works as an actor.

The movie was based on a book of the same name written by Paul Tripp, a children’s author and musician best known for the song “Tubby the Tuba”. Not only did he adapt The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t to the screen himself, but he also portrays the lead role in the film.

The music for The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t was provided by Bruno Nicolai, who composed music for for well over 100 features over his career, including Caligula, X312: Flight To Hell, and Django Shoots First. However, his more distinguished credits are as a conductor: he performed music for such films as Django, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The Battle of Algiers, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Waterloo.

In 2017, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t was featured in the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where it was mocked by the show’s hosts.

In an episode of The Simpsons, specifically season 12’s “Skinner’s Sense of Snow”, a parody of The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is briefly shown on a television, titled The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, But Then Was.

Even though the actors spoke their lines in English, there was no recording done on set, and everyone was dubbed over by other actors to avoid Italian accents. The only exception was the director, Rossano Brazzi, who recorded his character’s dialogue himself.

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t currently holds an unenviable 4.2/10 IMDb user rating, which likely has its featuring on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in large part to thank for that.

Not unlike the similarly silly Christmas-themed bad movie classics Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and Santa Claus (1959), The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is mostly ridiculous in how over-the-top its plot is. However, it is also just a goofy, utterly harmless little movie, that is endearing in how simple it is. Its internal logic is wholesome and childlike on a level that few stories can really touch: it sounds and feels like it might have even been written by a child.

The odd combination of the whimsy of Santa Claus with the harsh reality of financial inequality and greed is a weird mixture at the core of the movie to be sure, but it always feels grounded on the side of naivete. That said, the very premise of saddling Santa with real-world problems feels almost a tad like heresy: Santa is inherently supernatural and separate from the real world, and suggesting otherwise always turns a bit weird in movies in my opinion.

Probably due to the extensive use of dubbing, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t just looks and feels like a poorly translated foreign film. The mannerisms certainly add a lot to that as well, but there is an undeniable charm to watching a badly dubbed old movie. As someone who is a big fan of English-dubbed Godzilla movies, I have an admitted soft spot for bad dubbing in movies, so it was kind of a plus in my book.

Overall, I think there are definitely better bad Christmas movies to watch out there. However, if this one happens to pop up on you, it is totally worth sitting through. It might not merit seeking out, but it is hardly painful.

Worst Movies of 2017

Howdy loyal followers! As you are well aware, we are just about to put another year behind us. With 2017 coming to an end, I wanted to, once again, shine a spotlight on the publicly perceived worst films of the year.

I want to re-emphasize that this is a list I generated based on public perception, and not objective quality. I chose to measure this by compiling 11 currently published year-end “Worst of 2017” lists (from sources like The AV Club and The Chicago Tribune), then I tallied up how often each film appeared. It is a pretty simple and data-driven way to make this sort of list, and gives a rough idea of how widely despised individual films were.

As with last year, there was no consensus between the various “Worst of 2017” lists. Between the 11 ranking lists I initially pulled movies from, I wound up with roughly 70 different films with at least one tally, which included some obviously contentious, contrarian picks like Phantom Thread and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. For the sake of brevity, I’m only listing out movies here that appeared on more than 2 lists, but if you want to see the final version of my spreadsheet with all of the tallies and sources used, you can find it here.

Once again, there was no consensus pick for the worst picture of 2017. Last year, the most consistently reviled movie (Independence Day: Resurgence) was on 10/14 rankings, which crunches out to just under 72%. The fact that the closest thing to an agreed “worst movie of the year” failed to land a vote on 28% of lists certainly says something about either a variety of tastes, or a competitive field of bad movies. This year was no different: the highest vote-getter only barely squeaked by a tight pack of contenders, and received votes on only 7/11 lists (63.6%).

Without further ado, here are the publicly perceived worst movies of 2017:

  1. Transformers: The Last Knight
  2. Book of Henry / 50 Shades Darker / The Emoji Movie
  3.  The Mummy / Baywatch
  4. The Great Wall / King Arthur / Chips / The Snowman / Geostorm
  5.  The Dark Tower / Flatliners / Rings / Suburbicon 

Are there any movies that you expected to see that didn’t make the cut? Let me know in the comments!

The Identical

The Identical

Today, I’m taking a look at a bizarre alternate history film about identical twins who are, in turn, identical to Elvis Presley: 2014’s The Identical.

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

Twin brothers are unknowingly separated at birth; one of them becomes an iconic rock ‘n’ roll star, while the other struggles to balance his love for music and pleasing his father.

The screenplay for The Identical was written by Howard Klausner, whose other writing credits include Hoovey, Space Cowboys, Grace Card, and The Last Ride.

The Identical was directed by a man named Dustin Marcellino, who has no other directorial credits listed on IMDb. His only documented experience is shooting and editing a short film in 2011, called The Last Train.

The cast of the film includes the likes of Seth Green (Austin Powers, Idle Hands, The Italian Job, Rat Race), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Smokin Aces, Revolver, The Iceman), Ashley Judd (Heat, Bug, Frida), Joe Pantoliano (Memento, The Matrix, Daredevil, Pluto Nash), and Erin Cottrell (Love’s Abiding Joy). The lead of The Identical, Blake Rayne, is a well known Elvis Presley impersonator. He was cast in the dual lead role after one of his performances was seen by the film’s casting director, despite his lack of acting experience.

The cinematographer on The Identical was Karl Walter Lindenlaub, whose shooting credits include Independence Day, Stargate, Nine Lives, Universal Soldier, and Moon 44.

The editor for the film was Rick Shaine, who also cut Pitch Black, The Incredible Hulk, Theodore Rex, Loverboy, and the horror classic A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Four people are credited with composing music for The Identical, including Klaus Badelt (Ultraviolet, Equilibrium, Catwoman, Constantine, 16 Blocks, Rescue Dawn, Poseidon), Christopher Carmichael (The Howling: Reborn), and producers Yochanan and Jerry Marcellino, the latter of whom composed Michael Jackson’s hit single “Music & Me”.

After the film’s critical and financial failure, the production’s twitter account launched a campaign for fans to flood Rotten Tomatoes with positive reviews, claiming that the popular review aggregator has an anti-Christian bias. Even with that directed campaign, however, the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes for The Identical sits at an unenviable 62%.

The Identical only played in theaters for three weeks before getting pulled for low grosses. In that time, it took in only $2.8 million of its $16 million budget, making it a significant loss for a small production.

The reception to the film was arguably even more disastrous: Linda Cook, film critic for the Quad City Times, summarized it as “Showgirls bad: a vision that slowly goes wrong, then terribly wrong, then hits disaster levels.” Likewise, Randy Cordova of The Arizona Republic wrote that “Elvis Presley made some bad movies, but…He never made anything as outright awful as The Identical.” Currently, The Identical holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, along with a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of a measly 6%.

As far as positives go, I have to say that some of the music featured in the film is kind of catchy, even if the lyrics aren’t exactly deep. That said, this was definitely a music movie first, and everything else second. Unfortunately, that definitely shows once you delve beyond the soundtrack.

It would be easy to poke at first time actor Blake Rayne as a key issue with this movie. After all, he had no acting experience previously, so he’s an easy target. However, I thought he was actually pretty decent here. Given that his character is basically Elvis, it shouldn’t be too shocking that a professional Elvis impersonator could pull the role off well. Likewise, most of the cast is pretty decent: Liotta in particular deserves props for a performance that far exceeds the needs for this film.

The area where The Identical really suffers is in the screenplay writing. Not only is there a ton of unnecessary narration that drifts in and out of the film, but the very structure of story is bizarre: notably, it flashes back and forward numerous times, making it unclear when certain events are happening, and glosses over years at a time.

On top of that, there are some serious historical issues with the screenplay. For instance, it dodges the Civil Rights Movement and racism in any way that it can. Even more glaringly, the film doesn’t address that Elvis is an established figure within the film’s acknowledged historical canon. Basically, in the film’s version of history, both Elvis and an identical Elvis look-alike are celebrities at the same time, doing the same kind of music. On top of that, the Elvis look-alike’s identical twin winds up with an enviable music career, which is inexplicably never compared to Elvis’s. Despite establishing Elvis’s existence as a popular figure, at no point does anyone in the film note similarities between Elvis and his fictional identical(s), which is beyond mind-boggling. I assume this is the result of the screenplay originally having Elvis as a character (instead of Drexel), and being changed at some point to avoid issues. However, to leave in references to Elvis is a glaring flaw in the story’s world and internal logic, that both the screenwriter and director should have caught and omitted.

It may be a minor gripe, but one of the most egregious issues with The Identical is the costuming. There are countless bad wigs scattered throughout the film, in an attempt to convey ages of characters and time periods, but they all ultimately distract the eye because of how unconvincing they are. Costuming, ideally, should blend into the background, and only catch the audience’s eye if it is meant to establish something about a character or the setting. In this movie, wigs and outlandish outfits constantly stand out without cause or need, which takes away from the audience’s immersion and investment in the story.

Similar to the costuming, another pair of unusual issues with The Identical are the casting and makeup. Given the story spans over multiple decades, there were going to be some inevitable difficulties with portraying characters over time. Some productions elect to re-cast characters in order to convey different points in time, like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. This can create a slight disconnect, but audiences are usually a bit forgiving if the actors look plausibly related. The other popular way to show that characters have aged is the use of makeup, such as in Citizen Kane, which allows the same actor to portray an older version of their character. While some movies have been innovative in terms of prosthetic use or digital enhancements to achieve similar aging and de-aging effects, these two methods remain the most effective and cheapest ways to deal with having the same characters portrayed across long spans of time in a story.

In the case of The Identical, however, the production chose to do nothing at all. Seth Green and Blake Rayne, outside of changing goofy wigs occasionally, look the same when their characters are in high school and when they are grown adults. Particularly in the early sections of the film, this decision makes their scenes straight comical. In one sequence, the two clearly adult men are in a bar, and are supposed to be playing minors. Then, the “teens” are scolded by their also-adult parents. “Surreal” might not be the right descriptor, but it is pretty close.

If I didn’t know from the marketing that The Identical was a Christian movie, I’m not sure if I would have figured it out otherwise, and that is pretty noteworthy to itself these days. While religion does play somewhat prominently in the story, it is hardly the focal point. That is not even to mention that the version of Christianity lauded is not nearly as conservative as one might expect, particularly when comparing the film to its contemporary Christian features like God’s Not Dead or The War Room. Theoretically, this is what a Christian movie should be: a story that involves Christianity, insofar as it impacts the characters. The crux of the story isn’t that Christianity is rad: there is a (mostly) coherent narrative with tangible characters, who are often guided by their religion. It may seem like a minor distinction, but when a movie’s transparent purpose is to preach and convert, it automatically gets the tone of hokey propaganda, and it undercuts any character motivations or story investment that the audience might develop.

I don’t think there’s much to recommend with The Identical, but I did find it to be a bit thought-provoking. If you are curious, Ray Liotta and the music may justify your time, but there isn’t much entertainment to be had beyond that. I do think that, with some work on the screenplay and a little more attention to detail on screen, there might have been the makings of an interesting alternate history film here. Hell, if Bubba Ho-Tep can work, I’m not writing off any outlandish Elvis movie ideas.

Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Today, I’m going to look at one of the most notorious pre-MCU Marvel comics adaptations: Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, starring David Hasselhoff.

The plot of Nick Fury is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Marvel’s hard-boiled hero is brought to TV. He is brought back to fight the menace of Hydra after exiling himself in the Yukon since the end of the Cold War. The children of the former Hydra head, Baron Von Stucker, have taken charge of the terrorist organization. Under the lead of his vicious daughter, Viper, Hydra has seized a deadly virus and threatens the destruction of America. The covert agency SHIELD brings Fury out of retirement to fight the terrorists.

The character of Nick Fury was created by the legendary Marvel comics duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He first appeared in May 1963’s Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1, a World War II war series. However, his modern incarnation as a SHIELD secret agent and spy began with Fantastic Four #21 in December of 1963.

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD was written by David S. Goyer, who is now a proven blockbuster screenwriter with credits like Man of Steel, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Dark City, and the Blade trilogy. Earlier in his career, however, he penned low budget flicks like The Substitute, Demonic Toys, Kickboxer 2, and The Puppet Masters.

Nick Fury was directed by Rod Hardy, who did a lot of television work over his career, including stints on The X-Files, JAG, Burn Notice, Supernatural, The Mentalist, and Leverage.

The central cast of the film is made up of television legend David Hasselhoff (Baywatch, Baywatch Nights, Knight Rider, Starcrash), Lisa Rinna (Days Of Our Lives), Sandra Hess (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Beastmaster 3), Neil Roberts (Charmed, The Second Civil War), and Ron Canada (Pinocchio’s Revenge, National Treasure, Cinderella Man).

The editor for Nick Fury was Drake Silliman, who also cut Tremors 3, The Christmas Shoes, The Sisters, and did extensive editing work on television shows like Law & Order and Beauty & The Beast.

The musical score for the film was provided by Gary Lionelli (OJ: Made In America, Luck, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest) and Kevin Kiner (Star Wars: Rebels, Hell On Wheels, Jane The Virgin, Making A Murderer, Leprechaun, Carnosaur 3, Tremors 3). However, Lionelli’s work is interestingly not credited.

A number of the prominent characters in Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD have since appeared in the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe: Arnim Zola has been played by Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Baron Strucker has been played by Thomas Kretschmann (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and Nick Fury himself has been played by Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Agents of SHIELD, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Iron Man 2, Iron Man).

Nick Fury currently holds an unenviable IMDb user rating of 3.7/10, along with a 16% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and stands as one of the least-seen and most-reviled Marvel comics adaptations.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure why Nick Fury is so reviled. Particularly thanks to David Hasselhoff and Sandra Hess, who are having an absolute blast hamming up their respective roles, I found this film to be a cheesy but entertaining throwback to classic spy-centric action movies, kind of like Escape From New York and the Roger Moore James Bond years in a blender. The low budget might not have done it any favors, but the action is still palatable, if a bit hokey in its execution.

One of the odd strengths of Nick Fury is the consistently silly dialogue, which I think transcends the border into effective self-parody. I thought that this was a screenplay that was written with an awareness of its dated material, and used it to its advantage. Hess’s accented one-liners and Hasselhoff’s excessive “tough-guy” showboating all make a lot more sense if you look at the film through the lens of light parody and pastiche, rather than as an earnestly-constructed action flick. Likewise, the overly sentimental and unnecessary romantic subplot (acted out by a soap opera alum, no less) is hard to take seriously, specifically because it isn’t supposed to be.

Nick Fury is without a doubt cheesy and cheap, but I also think that it is exactly what it should have been: a story aware of how misplaced in time it is, that revels in its genre cliches. From what I can tell, a whole lot more people dislike this movie than have actually seen it, which is a damn shame. It isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it is a fun send up of the sillier Cold War era spy thrillers. By today’s Marvel standards, it would be a massive disappointment, but at the time, this was probably one of their better outings (next to 1989’s The Punisher, of course, which is magnificent).

If you can get into a cheesy action flick, I think there is something to enjoy with Nick Fury (provided you take it all with a grain or two of salt). For bad movie aficionados, this is one that is worth digging up in my opinion, and is in dire need of popular re-appraisal.