Category Archives: Clerk’s Pick

Reviews of movies selected and pitched by clerks at my local video rental shop: Video Central of Columbus, OH.

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.

Scotland, PA

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central
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Movie:
Scotland, PA
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Pitch:
“It is ‘MacBeth’ retold as the story of a fast food restaurant. But it kind of works? Christopher Walken is pretty great in it as an investigator on the case. It seems like ‘MacBeth’ doesn’t get these odd adaptations as often as ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo & Juliet’, but this is definitely an interesting one. Andy Dick plays one of the witches.”

Background:

“Scotland, PA” was written and directed by Billy Morrissette, an actor who has primarily appeared in bit roles throughout the late 80s and early 90s. As of the moment, “Scotland, PA” is Morrissette’s sole directing and writing credit, though he has apparently penned another movie set to release in 2015 (“My Dead Boyfriend”). Billy Morrissette is quoted as saying that he cooked up the concept for “Scotland, PA” while he was still in high school, making it a long time passion project for the actor.

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Morrissette

At the time, “Scotland, PA” received mixed reviews from critics (59% on Rotten Tomatoes), but was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at 2001’s Sundance Film Festival. Audiences regard it quite a bit higher than the critics, as it is sitting at a 74% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 rating with the IMDb user base.

“Scotland, PA” stars a host of character actors, led by the always delightful Christopher Walken. Maura Tierney, the female lead, was then married to writer/director Billy Morrissette, and reportedly had significant input on the writing of her modernized Lady MacBeth surrogate character. Other notables in the cast include the much maligned comedian Andy Dick, the recently deceased James Rebhorn, frequent mob-movie character actor Kevin Corrigan, and James Le Gros, best known recently for his role as Wade Messer in the hit TV show “Justified.”

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Tierney as Pat McBeth

The crew, outside of Morrissette, includes most notably the now prolific cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has done extensive work with director Christopher Nolan in recent years (“The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige”).

Some of the more interesting and unique aspects of the movie include the eclectic soundtrack and score, which features a large number of songs from the band Bad Company. Apparently this decision was not only made to accentuate the 1970s aesthetics, but also because the band’s catalog was “surprisingly cheap.”

Despite the setting and updated dialogue, “Scotland, PA” is pretty faithful to the spirit and content of the original Shakespeare play it is based on. Surprisingly, the movie even retains most of the Scottish character names from the play with only minor updates, such as MacDuff (changed to McDuff), MacBeth (changed to McBeth), and Banquo (changed to Banko). In a tongue-in-cheek move, apparently the press kits for the movie were designed after Cliff Notes booklets of “MacBeth.”

Review:

“Scotland, PA” is quite the eccentric adaptation of the “Macbeth” story, to say the least. It isn’t incredibly crafted by any means, but the movie is without a doubt fun to sit through. The characters have interesting voices, and all interact well with each other. As mentioned previously, the 1970s aesthetic is pushed to the maximum, which gives the movie a campy feel to it. The fashion, references, and soundtrack all do a great job of building the atmosphere, and help keep the film comedic in spite of the tragic content.

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Speaking of which, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this adaptation is the light-hearted and comedic aspects of it: most of the creative “MacBeth” adaptations out there don’t mess with the pure drama of the story, such as Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” and William Reilly’s “Men of Respect.” However, “Scotland, PA” is written and cast in such a way that what is essentially the same tragic story winds up being really funny, even if it is an incredibly dark way. Outside of the music, the dialogue and delivery is fantastic at keeping the tone lighter and ultimately out of the blood-drenched gutters of the story.

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Going into the movie, I was curious if there would be any nods to Polanski’s “Macbeth” from 1971, given the 1970s setting of this unconventional adaptation. Sure enough, James Le Gros’s “McBeth” is clad in a wig that resembles Jon Finch’s lengthy, 70s-tastic hairstyle. It was a small detail to be sure, but one that I definitely appreciated.

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I would be remiss to not mention Christopher Walken’s role in this movie. Unsurprisingly, he steals every scene he shows up in. I am a big fan of Walken’s style, and this is just the right kind of dark, quirky movie and role that he works spectacularly in these days. He still carries some of the gravitas from his days playing more serious roles, but also has genuinely fantastic comedic timing with his line delivery. That, in my opinion, means that he fits dark comedies brilliantly: he can participate in the comedic banter, and then turn the scene into a tense stare-down in a matter of seconds with the delivery of a single line. I was reminded of Walken’s famous scene with Dennis Hopper in “True Romance” more than once over the course of “Scotland, PA”, which I think illustrates this kind of interaction fantastically.

“Scotland, PA” is another movie that I can recommend to some very specific sets of people. I think most audiences might find the pacing too slow to be really fun, but fans of Shakespeare or indie comedies are almost certainly going to enjoy this movie. It definitely relies on knowledge of the source material, but in the case of a Shakespeare adaptation, that isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it is with other works. I can say that I personally enjoyed it quite a bit, although I think it could have been edited down a little bit more for the sake of pacing. In total, it clocks in at just over 1 hr 40 mins, so I think it could have lost a little bit of run-time. In any case, it is a plenty enjoyable film. If it sounds like it is up your alley, then definitely check it out.

Fatty Drives the Bus

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Brock, Video Central (Columbus, OH)

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Movie:
Fatty Drives the Bus
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Pitch:
“If you can handle a Troma movie, this is by far my favorite of theirs. It is about Satan hijacking a tour bus to take the souls of the passengers, but Jesus is in town and tries to stop them. I don’t think the director ever made any other movies, but it is one of my favorites.”

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Background:

The box for “Fatty Drives the Bus” proudly claims that it is a “film so far underground that it is going to hell.” As you might expect, there isn’t a whole lot of information out there about this low-budget 1999 Troma-produced flick.

Writer/Director Mick Napier is apparently a well-known Chicago stage director and improvisor, who has worked extensively with Second City and founded Chicago’s “The Annoyance Theater.” He is particularly well-regarded for his comedy improvisation, and has written a book on the subject called “Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out”

All of that said, Napier doesn’t have a whole lot of experience working on screen. He has had minor roles in movies like “The Ice Harvest” as an actor, but his writing and directing has been primarily limited to “Fatty Drives the Bus” and the television series “Exit 57,” which featured now well-known talents like Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.

The cast of “Fatty Drives the Bus” is made up of an assortment of comedic actors: I assume it was a sort of hodge-podge of whoever was available around Chicago at the time. It is pretty evident that this production didn’t have money behind it, so I doubt that anyone was being flown in to contribute.

As mentioned previously, “Fatty Drives the Bus” is distributed by the infamous outfit Troma Entertainment, through their Troma Team Video wing. Troma is known for Z-grade, tongue-in-cheek, crass productions like “The Toxic Avenger,” “Tromeo & Juliet,” and “Sgt. Kabukiman,” and perhaps more so for their charismatic, eccentric patriarch Lloyd Kaufman. When not creating eye-grabbing garbage movies, they also do a fair bit of distribution of Z pictures, as was the case with “Fattie Drives the Bus.”  Personally, seeing the Troma seal on a movie typically turns me off: not only are their movies consistently of poor quality, but they are never made in earnest, which denies them the charm of other bad movies. Still, they certainly have their fans, making them a particularly divisive outfit in the world of bad movies.

troma1 troma2However, because “Fatty Drives the Bus” was only distributed by Troma (not created by them), I am holding on to some optimism about this flick.

Review:

“Fatty Drives the Bus” definitely has similarities to the usual Troma fare, primarily in the fact that it sells itself on its title and outlandish plot. However, I think the content is far more similar to absurd comedies like “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” than the often physical and crass humor in most Troma flicks.

“Fatty Drives the Bus” is not a good movie in any conventional sense of the term, but there is some strange enjoyment to be had out of it. It is pretty clear that Napier has a great sense for comedy, and that the weaknesses of the movie have a whole lot more to do with inexperience behind a camera and what were almost certainly financial limitations for the project. For instance, the sound editing is particularly awful, and the pacing and editing through a number of sections is just bizarre, but not in what I assume was the intended way.

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As far as the positives go, the hell segments have some pretty solid makeup effects, and it is evident from both the writing and the deliveries that everyone involved with the production knows comedy inside and out. However, the comedy here is a very specific brand that I don’t think would appeal to a whole lot of people. I enjoyed it well enough even though it isn’t exactly my preferred flavor of comedy, but I would have trouble recommending it to anyone else. The movie, first and foremost, is just damn weird, enough so to turn off just about anyone. The technical issues are also pretty glaring in a way that might annoy audiences, but there is some question as to whether it was all intended in order to emphasize the atmosphere. I’m usually skeptical of that kind of ad hoc justification for quality issues, so I am not going to run with that assumption.

If you are into absurd humor in the style of “Tim & Eric”, this might be a movie up your alley. However, it certainly isn’t as well crafted as “Tim & Eric,” and you generally shouldn’t expect anything of quality outside of the humor. For anyone else, I would advise avoiding “Fatty Drives the Bus.” That shouldn’t be particularly hard, though, as this one isn’t likely to be sitting on a shelf anywhere near you.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Max, Video Central (Columbus, OH)

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Movie:
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
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Pitch:
“That ‘Disappearance of Alice Creed’ is pretty great. A fantastic example of fine screenwriting. There are really only those three characters in the whole thing, so it is the kind of thing you could imagine seeing on the stage. There are a couple of twists and turns in there: it is definitely worth checking out.”

Background:

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” was written and directed by J Blakeson, a man with very few other credits. According to IMDb, “Alice Creed” got him nominations for “Most Promising Newcomer” at the Evening Standard British Film Awards and “Breakthrough British Film Director” at the London Critics Circle Film Awards, and landed him on a list of 10 directors to watch in 2010 in Variety magazine. However, his follow-up to “Alice Creed” (a Columbia Pictures film called “Fifth Wave” about an alien invasion) has only just begun filming, and isn’t expected to be released until 2016. Outside of a handful of short films, his only credits are as a writer on “The Descent: Part 2” and a TV movie called “Mist: The Tale of a Sheepdog Puppy.”

As Max mentioned, “Alice Creed” consists of a bare-bones cast of three. Martin Compston has appeared on a number of BBC dramas and British movie productions, including “Line of Duty,” “Silent Witness,” and “Filth.” Eddie Marsan is a veteran character actor with a list of over 100 acting credits, in everything from “The World’s End” to “Gangs of New York” to “21 Grams,” and also appeared alongside Compston in “Filth.” Last, but not least, is Gemma Arterton, who plays the eponymous Alice Creed. Her credits are more big budget Hollywood than the other two, despite not starting out until 2007. In 2008 she appeared in movies such as the Bond flick “Quantum of Solace” and Guy Ritchie’s “RockNRolla,” which led into 2009 which included “Alice Creed” and “Pirate Radio.” By 2010 she was starring in Hollywood flicks like “Clash of the Titans” and “Prince of Persia.” She most recently popped up in movies like 2014’s “The Voices” with Ryan Reynolds and 2013’s “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” in a lead role alongside Jeremy Renner.

As far as trivia goes, most of the interesting stuff that I could dig up relates to the arduous and accelerated filming process. Not only was it filmed in four weeks, but the casting wasn’t completed until two weeks before shooting. According to IMDb, there is no dialogue until almost the 6 minute mark of the movie, which almost certainly means that non-verbal acting is used extensively to build tension, along with creative cinematography, sound, and editing. The movie includes a number of nude sequences, for which Gemma Arterton declined the use of a body double, apparently so that she could “convey genuine fear.” In addition to that, a number of rumors and tales have come out of the production in relation to her professionalism and dedication to the role, including refusing to be unlocked from her character’s handcuffs while she was on set.

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Critics generally enjoyed “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” more than casual audiences, as the movie scored 82% on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator alongside an audience score of 67% and an IMDb rating of 6.8. Although the film was nominated for a handful of awards in Britain, it didn’t ultimately take any of them home.

Review:

As I expected based on Max’s pitch, this is a movie absolutely driven by the three actors in it. To say they knock it out of the park doesn’t even begin to touch it: they each create memorable, interesting, highly emotional and relate-able characters that are absolutely believable. Credit also has to go to the writing on that, of course, but the whole project would have just fallen apart without the right players in place.

Speaking of the writing, “Alice Creed” is very well crafted in that regard as well. The dialogue is great, but that pales in comparison to the hair-pin turns that are pulled off effortlessly throughout the plot. The twists are well laid-out, but still surprising until you start to think about them. Being able to lay the groundwork for believable plot twists is no easy task, and it is pulled off damn well here.

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Apparently, the theatrical ending to the movie is not the one that was initially intended. Honestly, I didn’t notice, particularly in comparison to other movies that have altered endings at the last minute. It isn’t excessively cheery or anything, but it at least leaves a slight ray of sunshine at the end of a very dark drive.

There are some really good shots throughout the movie, and I particularly enjoyed the dialogue-less opening sequence where the premise slowly shapes together without a single word being spoken. The actors definitely pulled their weight there, but I thought that the shots and the editing were really telling the story throughout the sequence. DirectorJ Blakeson specifically mentions Ridley Scott’s opening to “Alien” as an influence on this sequence in his commentary on the film’s DVD, and I think you can really feel that desired atmosphere there. In any case, it was a great way to set up the tension for the rest of the movie, as well as a way to establish the primary setting.

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Despite having a few highly uncomfortable moments, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is a high recommendation for me. The pace starts dragging a little bit in the second half, but it never slows down enough to totally lose your attention. You care about the characters, and want to know what happens to them, even when things begin to drag. Top notch performances are had by all on screen, and an outstanding amount of skill is showcased by J Blakeson as a rookie to feature films. I’m looking forward to what he does next year with “Fifth Wave.”

 

Perfume: The Story of A Murderer

Clerk’s Pick

Today, I am kicking off a brand new segment here at Misan[trope]y Movie Blog. I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of physical media, and even more-so the culture that has formed around video stores over the years. In keeping with that, I am going to be doing a weekly segment called “Clerk’s Pick”, in which I let one of the clerks at my local video rental shop (Video Central of Columbus, OH) select and pitch a movie for me to review. I’ve always loved recommendations that come from actual people, and they tend to be a little more interesting and accurate than that whole Netflix “Max” thing. So, let’s get it kicked off:

Clerk:
Max, Video Central

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Movie:
“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”

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Pitch:
“Have you seen ‘Perfume?’ It is one of the best films in the store. I’m surprised more people haven’t hear of it. It is a big movie: Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, a whole lot of locations, and the largest orgy sequence I’ve ever seen. The main kid, Ben Whishaw, is the new Q in the James Bond movies. Anyway, it is about this guy who is trying to make a perfume based on the scent of his lover, so he starts murdering people and trying to use their fat and stuff to perfect the smell. You have to see it.”

Background:
Director/writer Tom Tykwer gained considerable international acclaim in 1998 with the beloved German indie “Run Lola Run”, which came about 8 years before “Perfume.” In those 8 years, he failed to match up to the international acclaim of “Lola”, releasing “The Princess and The Warrior” in 2000 and “Heaven” in 2002. Both were well-regarded and acclaimed in Germany, but didn’t receive much attention outside of Europe. After “Perfume”, he directed some larger movies (2009’s “The International” and “Cloud Atlas” in collaboration with the Wachowskis in 2012), but both were box office failures and met with mixed critical reviews.

The other writers on “Perfume” were Andrew Berkin (of “Omen 3 – The Final Conflict”) and prolific producer Bernd Eichinger, who is probably best known as being an EP for all of the Fantastic Four movies (yes, all of them). That said, he has a number of writing credits as well: most notably 2004’s highly acclaimed “Downfall,” which follows the fall of Adolph Hitler. However, “Perfume” was admittedly his dream project. Rumor has it that despite Eichinger being a good friend of the book’s author, the rights to the work cost the production 10 million Euro, a precedent that ultimately led the movie to being the most expensive German film of all time (50 million Euro).

“Perfume” is based on a 1985 German novel of the same name written by Patrick Suskind, which was generally well-regarded upon release. The story has been loosely adapted into television on the show “Criminal Minds”, inspired a song by Nirvana, and was recently debuted as a stage musical in Russia (really?), but Tykwer has been the only person to adapt it to the big screen so far. However, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

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A movie production of “Perfume” had been planned for years, with names like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton all at one point rumored to be involved (or actually were in Scott’s case). It is a wonder that such a sought after work landed in the hands of the relative neophyte Tykwer. Perhaps realizing the pressure and expectations for the picture, his ultimate charge of the production was near-Kubrickian in its attention to detail.

The costumes were custom made based on extensive research on the art and history of the period, and the actors were required to live in them to create a more accurate worn appearance for filming. The orgy scene, one of the largest in cinema history, was meticulously choreographed and featured professional dancers on the insistence of Tykwer. Also, as Max mentioned in the pitch, the production gallivanted throughout Europe: while the bulk of filming took place in Barcelona, shooting was also done throughout Spain, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

The cast is mostly made up of somewhat recognizable European character actors, which is in no way an insult: it is clearly a proudly European movie. Outside of Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, faces are mostly only familiar from German indie productions or the BBC. However, the recently knighted John Hurt does provide the narration, which is a nice touch. Ben Whishaw is given the lead role of Grenouille, a young actor who seems to be a still-rising star in Europe. He has appeared in a number of the bigger Tykwer movies like “Cloud Atlas” and “The International,” as well as the Helen Mirren led adaptation of “The Tempest,” BBC miniseries “Criminal Justice,” the surreal Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem,” and an ongoing role in the James Bond franchise as the new Q.

“Perfume” ultimately grossed $135 million, but a little less than half of that came specifically out of the German market, meaning it didn’t quite get the international steam that was hoped for. Regardless, it made a nice sum of money, and audiences mostly liked it despite critics being mixed (58% on Rotten Tomatoes, against a 74% Audience Score and a 7.5 on IMDb).

Review:

First off, “Perfume” has some really cool cinematography throughout the film. There is loads of visceral imagery, like the filmmakers are trying their best to portray smell via a visual medium. It is impossible not to notice all of the intentional focus on noses, with interesting shots and use of shadows to emphasize them.

There is a good amount of interesting sound editing, and in particular a lot of ambient, discordant music which adds to the intentional discomfort of the film’s atmosphere. Speaking of which, I don’t think I have ever come across a movie that so expertly creates such a sickening, repulsive atmosphere. In that sense, it is beyond a success.

perfume4One of the key complaints that I read about the film was that the script wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of the material. Honestly, I kind of wish there wasn’t so much narration: there is an awful lot of telling when the showing is already doing the job. That said, John Hurt’s voice works pretty well, even if the words written for him aren’t stellar. Whishaw has to do a lot of non-verbal acting in the movie, and he does a pretty good job with it. Without his performance, all the atmosphere created by the sound, the editing, the costuming, the locations, and the cinematography would have been lost. He holds it together, but the beauty is in the trim on this one: he isn’t fantastic, but the work around him elevates the ultimate product. Again, I credit a lot of this to the aforementioned meticulous attention to detail on the part of Tykwer and the crew. Absolutely nothing about this movie is half-assed.

perfume3I’m not sure how I feel about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the initial perfumer mentor to Whishaw’s Grenouille character. Something just feels off about it, and it is hard to nail down what it is. He is trying to pull off an accent that seems unnecessary, which at least partially contributes to the issue. Part of the problem might also sit in the writing of the character, but whatever the reason, it is a conspicuous weak point in the movie. That said, it doesn’t last very long: for being one of the top bills, Hoffman doesn’t spend much time in the movie. As with most of Grenouille’s masters throughout the film, he is coincidentally and quickly dispatched as soon as Grenouille leaves his company, which is kind of a problem to itself. When the house literally comes crashing down in on Hoffman, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. It plays almost like it is supposed to be absurdly comical, which definitely does not fit in with the greater tone of the movie.

perfume5The film’s has a couple of women who serve as the principal objects of Grenouille’s obsession, but neither of them get a whole lot of screen time. Both Rachel Hurd-Wood and Karoline Herfurth fit their roles well, even if that role is essentially as a set piece. Of the two, I thought Karoline did the better job with the smaller role. Hurd-Wood just didn’t seem to deliver her lines very well, but it wasn’t so awful that it was excessively distracting. By contrast, Alan Rickman plays Hurd-Wood’s protective father, and kills his role just like he always does. However, just like Hoffman, he only gets a small section of the movie to show what he can do.

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Karoline Herfurth
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Rachel Hurd-Wood

I would be remiss to not mention the bizarre, absurd ending to this movie. Throughout the film, Grenouille is transfixed with the idea of preserving the smell of humans, and is seeking the ability to create the finest smell of all time. Hoffman’s character regales him with a legend of a Pharaoh, who was buried with a perfume so fine that all of the world experienced a split second of paradise when it was released. That story proves to be foreshadowing, as the movie ends with Grenouille finally creating his master perfume: but only after figuring out the logistics of condensing human aromas, a process that required a fair amount of murder on Grenouille’s part. As Grenouille is about to be executed, he releases the perfect perfume, sparking a mass orgy. He is then spared of his grisly fate because everyone is just too damn busy having that previously mentioned perfume-catalyzed orgy. However, Grenoille soon decides to kill himself via adoring crowd by dousing himself in the perfume, which is a rather peculiar way to go.

There is a lot that can be said about the ending. I don’t mind the surreal aspects so much, but I didn’t feel like Grenouille was ever relate-able or sympathetic enough for me to feel anything about his ultimate…sacrifice? I’m not sure if you could even call it that. He certainly never showed remorse or redeemed himself for his actions, apart from cooking up an apparently kick-ass perfume. I would say that the ending is a overall a weak cap on an otherwise good movie.

perfume9In general, I recommend this one with a few caveats. Some of the murder scenes are incredibly uncomfortable, but if you have the stomach for it, the film is a real spectacle to sit through. The cinematography and costuming are the real standouts, but there is a lot more than that to appreciate about the film. The second caveat is that the writing and acting is spotty: the narration cuts in and out and isn’t written very well, and Hoffman is a huge weak spot in the cast. However, the beauty is in the details on this film: all of the little things really add up, and it definitely shows through in the finished product.

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