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Worst of 2018: Life Itself

Life Itself

Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the most divisive films of 2018: Life Itself.

The plot of Life Itself is summarized as follows:

As a young New York City couple goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes.

Life Itself was written, directed, and produced by Dan Fogelman, who is best known for the television show This Is Us, as well as writing films like Cars, Last Vegas, Bolt, Tangled, and Cars 2.

The cast of Life Itself includes Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Criminal Minds), Olivia Wilde (House), Annette Bening (American Beauty), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, Ouija), and Laia Costa (Victoria).

The film was edited by Julie Monroe, who has cutting credits that include The Patriot, Midnight Special, Loving, Gigli, and World Trade Center, among others. The cinematography was provided by Brett Pawlak, who also shot the films Hellion, Max Steel, We Are Your Friends, The Meddler, and The Glass Castle.

The screenplay for Life Itself was named to the 2016 Black List, which is an annual honor given to a handful of unproduced screenplays deemed to be of high quality. The 2016 list also included The Post, I, Tonya, and Hotel Artemis, which have also been successfully produced.

Following the premiere of Life Itself as the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, a bidding war ensued over the film’s distribution. Ultimately, Amazon bought the distribution rights for a grand total of $10 million. In it’s lifetime theatrical run, however, it only brought in $7.5 million worldwide.

Critically, the reception to Life Itself was deeply divided, with most critics deriding the film and many including it in the conversation as one of the worst films of the year, while casual audiences warmly received the work. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics score is a dismal 13%, compared to an audience score of 78%. Likewise, Metacritic has the film at a 21/100, while IMDb’s user rating is a far more receptive 6.4/10.

In A. O. Scott’s review for The New York Times, he summed up Life Itself as follows:

There is a lot of [bad writing] here, and also…a lot of good acting. It is poignant and sometimes weirdly thrilling to watch Mr. Isaac, Ms. Wilde and the other cast members…commit with such fervor and seriousness to such utter balderdash.

My initial reaction to this film was almost identical – it is always kind of shocking to see good performers working with sub-par material, and making the most of it. However, I didn’t dislike this film nearly as viscerally and passionately as most critics. It definitely drifts into the realm of sentimental nonsense with reckless abandon, but I kind of expect that from a sappy drama with illusions of cleverness. While the rambling sequences dedicated to the eponymous dissertation did make me want to tear my hair out, I was able to get through most of the film with shrugs and mild sighs. It certainly relishes in depicting the misfortunes of women and children to an uncomfortable degree (I appreciate Slate‘s re-titling of the film to Terrible Things Keep Happening to Nice, Attractive People, Especially the Women). However, I think the performances, at least in the first half of the film, keep the whole mess watchable. In the later chapters, the quality of the performances drops off a bit, which made the film feel way longer than it was to me.

Overall, this film is certainly not great. For the most part it is merely unremarkable, with a smattering of cringe-worthy dialogue segments about faux-philosophical epiphanies. That said, I’m not sure if it is quite the worst of what 2018 had to offer, though. If the performances were a bit weaker, I think this would certainly earn a spot in the year’s basement. As it is, however, I think this is just another overwrought drama with delusions of grandeur that is best to be ignored. There isn’t anything here that couldn’t be better experienced with other films.

Worst of 2018: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders

Today, I am continuing my Worst of 2018 coverage with the oddball puppet movie, The Happytime Murders.

The plot of The Happytime Murders is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When the puppet cast of a ’90s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.

The Happytime Murders was co-written by Todd Berger, who is perhaps best known for his bizarre dark comedy, It’s A Disaster.

The director for The Happytime Murders was Brian Henson, who previously directed Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Notably, he is the son of Jim Henson, beloved creator of The Muppets.

The cast for the movie includes Melissa McCarthy (Ghostbusters, The Heat, Spy, Tammy), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, Power Rangers), Maya Rudolph (Inherent Vice, Away We Go, Bridesmaids), Leslie David Baker (The Office), Joel McHale (Community, Ted), and Michael McDonald (MADtv).

The cinematographer for the film was Mitchell Amundsen, who also shot CHIPS, A Bad Moms Christmas, Odd Thomas, Jonah Hex, Now You See Me, Transformers, and Wanted.

The score for The Happytime Murders was composed by Christopher Lennertz, who also provided music for films like Pitch Perfect 3, Sausage Party, Uncle Drew, Baywatch, and Horrible Bosses.

Sesame Workshop filed a lawsuit against the production over the tag line “No Sesame. All Street.” claiming that it tarnished their reputation. The production company behind Happytime, STX, claimed that the advertising was clearly distinct from Sesame Street, and the suit was eventually thrown out. Afterwards, some TV spots for the film started with “From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street…”

When this film was announced, many noted the stylistic similarities to notable previous films, such as Peter Jackson’s vulgar puppet movie Meet the Feebles and the hit crossover animation / live action film noir, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

The Happytime Murders was a financial flop, bringing in only $20.7 million on a $40 million budget. Critically, it didn’t fare any better, as it currently holds a 5.3/10 IMDb user rating, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 23% from critics and 41% from audiences. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone went so far as to say that the film might be the worst of the decade, and numerous critics listed it among their worst films of 2018.

The biggest problem with Happytime, without any doubt, is that it is just not funny. The film tries to lean on the raw absurdity of featuring puppets in a lude plot, but there isn’t much mileage to get out of that. The film is almost entirely gross-out humor, with little in the way of thought or care put into the writing. The result is a shallow, uncompelling story laced with what might pass for humor at 2am to a thoroughly inebriated person with a deeply-buried puppet fetish.

What is odd about all of this is that Happytime boasts a really good cast of comedic performers. This is basically raw proof that performers, regardless of talent, can’t save underlying bad writing.

When it comes down to it, this film just shouldn’t have gotten the green light to start with. The very foundation of the premise was begging for failure. What I don’t understand is why anyone thought this would work, to the tune of $40 million. As a niche project by Adult Swim, I could maybe see something like this if the budget could be kept to a minimum. However, I just can’t imagine this even breaking even with the money put into it, and I don’t know why anyone thought it would. The best I can figure is that this was someone’s passion project (Henson?), who was well-connected and wealthy enough to make it happen regardless of criticisms. Regardless, it should go without saying that this film is an atrocious bore, and I can’t even lightly recommend it to the depraved – they almost certainly have better things to do than this.

Worst of 2018: Venom

Venom

Today, I’m kicking off my Worst of 2018 coverage with the divisive quasi-Marvel movie, Venom.

The plot of Venom is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

The screenplay for Venom was written by Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey), and Scott Rosenberg (Kangaroo Jack, High Fidelity, Con Air, Disturbing Behavior)

Venom was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously directed the films Gangster Squad and Zombieland, as well as episodes of Santa Clarita Diet, Superstore, and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.

Venom is based on a popular Marvel comics character of the same name that first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 in 1988. The character was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie as a new, villainous form of the sentient black-and-white Spider-Man costume debuted in 1984. Since then, the character has gone through multiple incarnations, and oscillated between being a villain and anti-hero in various plot lines.

The cast of the film includes Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Locke), Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea, All The Money In The World), Scott Haze (Midnight Special), Reid Scott (Veep), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child, Bored To Death, Zootopia), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions, The Sisters Brothers), and Woody Harrelson (Kingpin, True Detective, Seven Psychopaths, Zombieland, Rampart).

The cinematographer for Venom was Matthew Libatique, who has shot such acclaimed movies as Black Swan, A Star Is Born, Iron Man, Phone Booth, and Requiem For A Dream.

Venom employed the work of two editors: Maryann Brandon (Alias, Super 8, Passengers, Star Trek, How To Train Your Dragon) and Alan Baumgarten (The Lawnmower Man, American Hustle, Trumbo, Zombieland, Lifepod)

The film’s music was composed by Ludwig Göransson, who previously provided scores for Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station, Death Wish, and Creed 2.

Venom had a lengthy, tumultuous production history. The film was originally envisioned as a spin-off from Sam Raimi’s widely-reviled Spider-Man 3. Shortly after the Spider-Man films were rebooted, however, the film was announced once again, though this time within the continuity of the rebooted series. Following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony announced that Venom would be a part of their Spider-Man Cinematic Universe. Following that film’s lackluster reception, however, Sony and Marvel decided to collaborate on another reboot of the Spider-Man films, which placed Venom in limbo once again. Ultimately, Venom was produced as a “tangent” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though the exact relationship of the character to Spider-Man and other Marvel properties has yet to be properly clarified.

The actors Alan Tudyk and Jackie Earl Haley were at one point considered for Woody Harrelson’s role as Cletus Kasady / Carnage.

Director Ruben Fleischer has stated that he wanted Venom to look tonally different from other contemporary comic book movies. According to him, he “wanted to make a darker, grittier, kind of edgier comic book movie that also has a strong horror element…Those were the aspects: darker, edgier, grittier.”

Before Riz Ahmed was ultimately cast as Carlton Drake / Riot, actors such as Matt Smith and Pedro Pascal were considered for the part.

The trailers to Venom met with uniquely negative reactions from fans. First, the initial trailer was criticized for lacking the iconic Venom suit. Additionally, many fans went up in arms over characters’ pronunciations of the word “symbiote,” which many felt was indicative of a lack of familiarity with the source material and history of the character.

Despite the reticent fan reaction to the trailers, Venom was a box office hit, taking in $855.5 million on a production budget of $100 million. However, the critical reception to Venom was mixed. While it earned decent marks from audiences, including a 6.8/10 IMDb user rating and Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 84%, it was frequently named on year-end “Worst of 2018” lists by critics, and earned a dismal 28% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times even referred to the film as “a tone-deaf, uneven and maddeningly dumb clunker,” echoing the critics’ consensus regarding the film’s awkward humor and tonal issues.

Speaking of which, it is hard not to take note of the odd moments of humor and attempted banter that pepper the film. While this is certainly reminiscent of the comic origins of the character, it doesn’t translate very well in this film – perhaps more adept hands could have pulled it off, like more comedic-experienced actors and sharper dialogue writing to boost them.

Tom Hardy’s performance in this film is perplexing. His line deliveries and accent are odd, but also evidently very specific and crafted. He clearly had inspirations for his performance, but they don’t necessarily feel appropriate for this character. Brock, thanks to Hardy’s performance, comes off as a bit of a prat-falling doofus, as opposed to the brooding and motivated reporter he was clearly written as. I’m not sure if this was necessarily miscasting per se, but I think the director should reigned Hardy in and given some guidance in a different direction.

A key problem I found with this film were the visuals – while they are certainly in line with the director’s stated vision, I found them to be a little bit too dark. This isn’t necessarily an issue in all cases, but for this movie, where a number of characters are amorphous black-colored CGI monsters, having a dark palette and general design often makes it difficult to tell what is happening on screen. If you ask me, the Venom costume at least needed some kind of more visible contrast (like the prominent white from the original comic design, residual from the Spider-Man suit).

My biggest issue with this film is something that is difficult to pinpoint – I just found the whole package to be a bit bland and uninspired. On top of the already outlined issues, the villain was unremarkable, the effects and stunts felt unspectacular, and the story and character relationships were both a bit lacking. Pretty much every element of the film was at least a wee bit sub-par, and the sum follows suit.

Overall, this film could have easily been much worse. It isn’t particularly good or a stand-out by any means among its comic book movie peers, but I’d certainly take this over Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, or the Ang Lee Hulk adaptation. Despite some iffy dialogue, Hardy’s odd performance, and the muddy visuals, it is a watchable enough flick. I’m not sure if I would recommend it to any but the most staunch of Venom fans, but it would be a bearable HBO watch if you were captive in a hotel room.

Worst Movies of 2018

Howdy loyal followers! Now that 2018 is well into the dirt, I wanted to, once again, shine a spotlight on the publicly perceived worst films of the year.

Once again, 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 15 currently published year-end “Worst of 2018” lists (from sources like The AV Club and Variety), 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.

Even more so than last year, there was very little consensus among the various rankings. Between the 15 lists I compiled entries from, 103 individual films received tallies. For the sake of brevity, I am only including the films that appeared most often in this post. However, as always, the full spreadsheet of films and sources is available here.

As with the past two years, there was no runaway “Worst Movie of 2018.” The two films with the most tallies were only on 10 of 15 lists (66.66%), which means that they were left off of an entire third of popular year-end lists. On top of that, there was a tight cluster of ties, with 18 movies earning enough tallies to crack the Top 5.

If you are curious about what past rankings looked like, feel free to check out my Worst Movies of 2017 and Worst Movies of 2016 posts.

Now, without further ado, here are the publicly perceived worst movies of 2018:

  1. The Happytime Murders / Gotti
  2. Venom / Life Itself / Fifty Shades Freed
  3. Robin Hood
  4. Mile 22 / Dark Crimes / Slender Man / 15:17 To Paris
  5. Winchester / Overboard / Truth Or Dare / Death Wish / Show Dogs / Death of a Nation / The Cloverfield Paradox / Peppermint

The Stuff (Throwback Post)

This is a repost of a previously published review. The Stuff is the only movie I have covered through a blog post, a podcast, and a video, and I even discussed it with Larry Cohen himself once – it is definitely a favorite. Due to my wedding/honeymoon, as well as hectic grad school scheduling, I’m taking some time off from weekly posts. See y’all in the new year! – Gordon

The Stuff

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Santa’s Slay (Throwback Post)

This is a repost of a previously published review. Due to my wedding/honeymoon, as well as hectic grad school scheduling, I’m taking some time off from weekly posts. – Gordon

Santa’s Slay

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Today’s feature is a holiday-themed horror-comedy: Santa’s Slay.

Santa’s Slay was written and directed by David Steiman, who was Brett Ratner’s assistant on Red Dragon and Rush Hour 2, and also worked on Inspector Gadget, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away, and The Family Man.

The cinematographer for Santa’s Slay was Matthew F. Leonetti, who shot movies like Accepted, The Butterfly Effect, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Red Heat, Action Jackson, Commando, Species II, Dragnet, Weird Science, and The Bat People, among many others.

Santa’s Slay featured two primary editors: Julia Wong (Extract, Good Luck Chuck, X-Men: The Last Stand) and Steve Polivka (Teen Wolf Too, Law & Order: SVU, Justified).

santaslay2The team of producers for Santa’s Slay included filmmaker Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon, Hercules), Andreas Schmid (Perfume: Story of a Murderer, Lord of War, Lucky Number Slevin), Matthew F. Leonetti Jr. (The Mechanic, Evil Dead, Oldboy), Sammy Lee (Monster), Stewart Hall (Running Scared), John Cheng (Horrible Bosses), and Andreas Grosch (Lucky Number Slevin, Lord of War).

Th effects work on Santa’s Slay was done by a team that included Prudence Olenik (Prom Night II), Leo Wieser (Shanghai Knights, Ginger Snaps II), Bob David (Android Apocalypse), Eugene Gogowich (Inception, Brokeback Mountain), Neil Krause (Tideland), Chris Aronoff (Giallo), Beverly Bernacki (State of Play, From Dusk Till Dawn 3, Robot Jox), Joshua D. Comen (Soul Plane, Riddick), Jamison Scott Goei (Dracula 2000, From Dusk Till Dawn 2, From Dusk Till Dawn 3), Anthony Ivins (Son of the Mask, The Spirit), Laura LeFaivre (Aeon Flux), Debbi Nikkel (Spaceballs, Armageddon), and Marlo Padon (Freejack, Con Air, Flubber, Total Recall, The Abyss).

The musical score for Santa’s Slay was composed by Henning Lohner, who also provided music for movies like In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, BloodRayne, and The Ring Two.

The cast of Santa’s Slay includes professional wrestler Bill Goldberg (Universal Soldier: The Return), Douglas Smith (Big Love, Terminator Genisys), Robert Culp (Xtro 3, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, Goldengirl), Emilie de Ravin (Lost, Once Upon A Time), Saul Rubinek (Warehouse 13), and Dave Thomas (Strange Brew, Coneheads, Rat Race), along with brief cameos by James Caan (The Godfather), Chris Kattan (Corky Romano, A Night At The Roxbury), Fran Drescher (The Nanny), and Tiny Lister (Dracula 3000, No Holds Barred).

The plot of Santa’s Slay is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Santa Claus is actually a demon who lost a bet with an Angel, so he becomes the giver of toys and happiness. But when the bet is off, he returns to his evil ways.

Santa’s Slay isn’t a particularly beloved movie: it currently holds a 43% audience aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.4.

santaslay3The idea behind Santa’s Slay is admittedly pretty amusing: that Santa Claus is actually a demonic Norse warrior, bound to serve children by a sort of curse. Honestly, if there is anything positive to say about Santa’s Slay, it is that Santa looks awesome, and it offers plenty of slasher movie deaths at his hands.

On the other hand, Bill Goldberg isn’t much of an actor, and fumbles his way through countless one-liners throughout the movie, as do the less interesting protagonist characters. The dialogue writing across the board is pretty awful, and contains a lot of half-assed attempts at humor that don’t come off very well, so it is hard to lay all of the blame on the actors there.

Overall, Santa’s Slay is a fun enough holiday slasher movie, even if it does wink a little too much, and is a bit lacking in the humor department. The opening scene is fantastic for its cameo density, and, as mentioned previously, Goldberg looks awesome in his rugged, demonic Santa suit. I wouldn’t go in expecting too much from it, but I think this is a fun enough movie to watch with a mixed crowd of casual movie goers and bad movie aficionados alike.

For more thoughts on Santa’s Slay, I recommend reading the always amusing Something Awful review post, and also check out the video on it over at Good Bad Flicks.

The Punisher (Throwback Post)

This is a repost of a previously published review. Due to my wedding/honeymoon, as well as hectic grad school scheduling, I’m taking some time off from weekly posts. – Gordon

The Punisher

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Today’s movie is a lesser-known early Marvel comic book adaptation: 1989’s The Punisher.

The Punisher is a character who was initially created by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita, Sr. for Marvel, and he was debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man issue #129 in 1974. 1989’s The Punisher marked his first appearance in a film, though not his last: two other high profile movies were created with the character in 2004 (The Punisher) and 2008 (Punisher: War Zone), and a television series starring the character is currently on Netflix as part of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The writer for The Punisher was Boaz Yakin, who also penned From Dusk Til Dawn 2, The Rookie, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and also directed movies like Remember The Titans and Uptown Girls.

The Punisher was directed by Mark Goldblatt, who is best known as the proficient editor of such movies as Predator 2, Enter The Ninja, Humanoids From The Deep, Piranha, Super Mario Bros, The Howling, Commando, The Terminator, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The Punisher is one of only two feature-length directorial efforts by Goldblatt, the other being the buddy cop zombie flick Dead Heat.

The editor for The Punisher was Tim Wellburn, who also cut the Stuart Gordon flick Fortress and the BeastMaster television series. The cinematographer for the film was Ian Baker, who also shot such movies as Queen of the Damned, Evan Almighty, and Roxanne.

The musical score for The Punisher was composed by Dennis Dreith, who has worked as an orchestrator on movies like The Rock, Jurassic Park, and Misery.

The visual effects for The Punisher were done by one Roger Cowland, who has worked on such films as Babe, The Piano, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and The Howling III.

The Punisher special effects and makeup teams included common elements with movies like The Matrix, The Road Warrior, Street Fighter, Fortress, Crocodile Dundee II, Razorback, and Mad Max, among others.

One of the producers for The Punisher was Robert Mark Kamen, an accomplished action movie writer who penned screenplays for such movies as Taken, The Transporter, The Fifth Element, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Karate Kid.

The cast for The Punisher includes Dolph Lundgren (Masters of the Universe, Dark Angel, Rocky IV), Louis Gossett Jr. (Iron Eagle, Jaws 3-D), Jeroen Krabbé (The Fugitive, The Living Daylights), Barry Otto (The Great Gatsby, The Howling III), Nancy Everhard (DeepStar Six), and Kim Miyori (Metro).

THE PUNISHER, Louis Gossett, Jr., Dolph Lundgren 1989.The plot of The Punisher follows Frank Castle, an ex-cop turned vigilante who hunts down and executes members of the mafia and other criminal figures. After 5 years of his activities, the local criminal scene has weakened considerably, but the vacancy also attracts the interest of a foreign criminal power: the Yakuza. After the Yakuza attempts to seize the remaining operations of the mafia by kidnapping the surviving leadership’s children, Castle winds up making strange allies through his efforts to save the children and put the Yakuza down.

punisher4Reportedly, most of the fight choreography for the film was done with full contact, given professional martial artists were hired for the fighting roles instead of stuntmen. Dolph Lundgren did most of his own stunts for his role as well, given his martial arts background.

The Punisher is one of the best known “Ozploitation” action movies: meaning it was filmed in Australia, and done with extreme violence on an exploitation level.

A sequel to the movie was at one point planned, but the production company (New World Pictures) wound up going bankrupt before it could happen.

The Punisher interestingly did not theatrically release in the United States, due to the aforementioned bankruptcy of the production company. However, it managed to distribute to theaters internationally (at least, in places where it wasn’t outright banned), and popped up on home video shortly thereafter.

The beginning of The Punisher features a thinly-veiled version of John Gotti, one of the most well-known gangsters of the modern era. In 1989 (the year of this film’s release), he was still two years off from his ultimate conviction and incarceration, but was very much a public and recognizable figure as a crime boss. While the character isn’t explicitly named John Gotti in the movie, he is referred to as “The Dapper Don,” a well-known nick-name of Gotti’s.

The reception to The Punisher was generally negative: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 28% (critics) and 32% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 5.6. However, it has a dedicated cult following in spite of the bad reviews.

punisher3The Punisher has a great grimy look and feel to it, which is definitely a credit to this being an exploitation-style action movie. Honestly, I think this ambiance fits The Punisher as a character better than the other adaptations, though I don’t hate either of those films as much as some people do. As weird as Lundgren’s casting might seem at first glance, I think he nails the spirit of the character pretty well. Also, it is hard not to appreciate that this movie isn’t an origin story, and that the plot the screenwriter came up with is actually pretty cool, and deals with a realistic consequence of the presence of a Punisher-style vigilante.

punisher2I have never understood why so many people vocally hate this movie. The absence of the iconic skull image is certainly notable, but that actually strikes me as pretty minute on the grand scale of things. This movie is over-the-top violence and action, which is basically what the spirit of The Punisher is all about. Dolph even does a pretty good job with his lines, which is likely the result of him being given permission to rewrite them for his comfort level. I feel like it is a real shame that Goldblatt hasn’t directed any other movies, as both Dead Heat and The Punisher are entertaining flicks that have become cult classics.

I definitely recommend checking this movie out, as it is probably the best of the Marvel movies made before the modern era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony’s Spider-Man flicks, and Fox’s X-Men franchise. I think b-movie and action fans in particular will enjoy this adaptation, perhaps more so than die-hard fans of the comics.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (Throwback Post)

This is a repost of a previously published review. Due to my wedding/honeymoon, as well as hectic grad school scheduling, I’m taking some time off from weekly posts. – Gordon

The Island of Doctor Moreau

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Today’s flick is the disastrous 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is based on a famous work by H.G. Wells, which has been adapted a number of times to the screen, dating all the way back to 1932’s Island of Lost Souls. The screenplay for this particular incarnation was written by Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) and Ron Hutchinson (The Josephine Baker Story).

The screenplay co-writer Richard Stanley was initially brought on board to direct, but was ultimately fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Reindeer Games, Ronin). However, rumor has it that Stanley snuck back on to the production as an extra, specifically made up as one of the background creatures so that he could eavesdrop on the progress of the movie.

The cinematographer for The Island of Dr. Moreau was William A. Fraker, who also shot such films as Vegas Vacation, Tombstone, Street Fighter, SpaceCamp, WarGames, The Exorcist II, Rosemary’s Baby, 1941, and Bullitt, and was nominated for a total of 6 different Academy Awards over his career.

The Island of Doctor Moreau featured two primary editors: Adam P. Scott, who has worked on films like Any Given Sunday, The Insider, Blade, and Matchstick Men, and Paul Rubell, who cut The Cell, Thor, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Collateral, and Battleship. A third editor, Thom Noble (Red Dawn, Thelma & Louise, Alex Cross, Fahrenheit 451), worked without credit on the film.

The makeup and special effects for The Island of Doctor Moreau were provided by the prestigious Stan Winston Studios, led by none other than Stan Winston himself, a four time Academy Award winner. The makeup and special effects teams included common elements with movies like The Thing, The Cell, John Dies At The End, Tremors, Congo, Jurassic Park, Lake Placid, Small Soldiers, The Bat People, Predator 2, Avatar, Iron Man, Hollow Man, Class of 1999, Pacific Rim, Aliens, Leviathan, Dollman, and Dead Heat.

moreau2The score for The Island of Dr. Moreau was composed by Gary Chang, who also provided music for movies like The Substitute, Under Siege, and A Shock To The System.

The three producers on the film were Claire Rudnick Polstein (Austin Powers, Wag The Dog), Tim Zinnemann (Street Fighter, The Running Man) and Edward R. Pressman (Street Fighter, Judge Dredd, Masters of the Universe, The Hand).

The cast for The Island of Dr. Moreau included David Thewlis (The Big Lebowski, DragonHeart), Val Kilmer (Heat, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Top Gun), Marlon Brando (On The Watefront, The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now), Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim, Hellboy), Mark Dacascos (American Samurai, Only The Strong, Double Dragon, Scorcher), Peter Elliott (Congo), Temuera Morrison (Speed 2), and Fairuza Balk (The Waterboy).

moreau3The plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau follows a shipwrecked man who is rescued and brought to an isolated island.  However, the island is inhabited by a reclusive and eccentric doctor, who has been performing experiments splicing genes from humans with animals, and has created a population of hybrid abominations. As the story progresses, the hybrids become increasingly unruly and savage, and ultimately revolt against their creator.

As he did with many of his later movies, Marlon Brando was affixed with a radio receiver in his ear so that someone off-screen could feed his lines to him. However, during The Island of Doctor Moreau, the device received a good deal of interference from local radio frequencies, and lore has it that Brando would frequently read off messages from police scanners  instead of his lines, without realizing his mistake.

moreau1One particularly infamous sequence from The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which Brando plays a piano duet with his small companion (who he insisted on having as part of the production), was famously lampooned in the second Austin Powers movie. The sequence went so far as to even include the stacked miniature piano setup used in Moreau.

In 2014, a documentary was released detailing the troubled production behind The Island of Doctor Moreau, titled Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.

Val Kilmer tried to get out of the movie before filming began, but was contractually forced to participate. He openly disliked the direction of the film, and was reportedly actively disruptive during the production. Rewrites reassigned many of his lines to Ron Perlman’s character so that his screentime could be further limited, and the director reported said “Cut. Now get that bastard off my set” after the last take with Kilmer wrapped.

Rob Morrow was originally cast as the lead, but left after Stanley was fired from the production. This led to Thewlis being brought in on short notice to take over the role.

Because of numerous rewrites and changes in direction, the screenplay for The Island of Doctor Moreau went through no less than four distinct incarnations over the course of the production.

The Island of Doctor Moreau wound up with six Golden Raspberry nominations, which are given out to the worst films and performances of the year. Outside of Marlon Brando winning for worst supporting actor, however, it wound up getting beat out in the major categories by the Demi Moore movie Striptease.

The popular reception to The Island of Doctor Moreau was quite poor, though it did wind up making its money back at the box office (a gross of $49 million on a budget of $40 million). It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 23% (critics) and 20% (audience), along with a 4.4 rating on IMDb.

The Stan Winston designed creature effects are pretty impressive, and are probably the biggest reason that this movie is remembered in any kind of positive light. Some of the creatures certainly look more realistic than others, but the sheer amount of makeup work that had to be done to transform so many actors must have been daunting, and it isn’t too outlandish to say that the movie probably wouldn’t have happened at all without Winston’s involvement.

Where the movie really falls apart is with the screenplay, which, as I mentioned earlier, went through a number of rewrites. This was clearly an ambitious project, but it comes off on screen as trying to do far too much, and it lacks an even tone or style thanks to all of the edits and rewrites. Apparently, apart from the full screenplay rewrites, some of the actors also rewrote their own lines, which contributes even more to the bizarre inconsistencies throughout the film.

The one-two acting punch of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, which should have been a knock-out combo on paper, proved to be an absolute disaster for this production. Not only did both men already have reputations for being troublesome on sets, but both were in particularly bad personal situations during the filming of Moreau: Kilmer was suddenly embroiled in an unexpected divorce, and Brando was mourning the recent suicide of his daughter. Adding to the powder keg, appropriately enough, was an atomic test that was performed near a property owned by Brando, went sent him even further into a dark psychological state. The mixture of all of these elements created two lead actors who wanted nothing more than to be off the production, and gave respective performances that could accurately be described as sabotage.

Overall, this is a legendarily terrible movie, but is another one of those productions that feels like it had some honest potential behind it. The behind the scenes antics are fascinating to read into, and make the movie worth a watch if you ask me. Kilmer and Brando are also hypnotically awful in their performances, despite how little screen time they get.

I first saw this  movie when I was pretty young, when it got a lot of airplay on the Sci-Fi Channel, and it made a significant impression on me. I remember being particularly baffled by Kilmer’s drug-fueled Brando impression in particular, which might be the highlight of the whole film. If you happen to come across this one, it is worth picking up, particularly if you are a fan of movie trivia. I also recommend giving a watch to the documentary about it, Lost Soul.

Motel Hell (Throwback Post)

This is a repost of a previously published review. Due to my wedding this month, as well as hectic grad school scheduling, I’m taking some time off from weekly posts. – Gordon

Motel Hell

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Today’s feature is a cult favorite horror comedy from 1980: Motel Hell.

Motel Hell was directed by Kevin Connor, who spent most of his career directing television movies and television series. The screenplay for the movie was written by brothers Robert Jaffe (who penned screenplays for Nightflyers and Demon Seed) and Steven-Charles Jaffe (producer of Star Trek VI, Near Dark, Ghost, and Time After Time), who also served as producers for the film.

The plot of Motel Hell is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A seemingly friendly farmer and his sister kidnap unsuspecting travelers and bury them alive, using them to create the “special ingredient” of their famous roadside fritters.

The cinematographer for the film was Thomas Del Ruth, who went on to shoot Death Wish II, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, The Running Man, The Mighty Ducks, and numerous episodes of The West Wing.

The editor for Motel Hell was Bernard Gribble, who also cut Caddyshack II, Death Wish, Top Secret, White Dog, and Aces: Iron Eagle III.

The music for the film was composed by Lance Rubin, who also provided music for the film Happy Birthday To Me, as well as the television shows King of the Hill and Fantasy Island.

The primary cast of Motel Hell was made up of Rory Calhoun (Night of the Lepus, The Texan), Paul Linke (K-PAX, Parenthood, Chips), Nina Axelrod (Critters 3, Roller Boogie), Wolfman Jack (American Graffiti), and Nancy Parsons (Sudden Impact, Porky’s, Steel Magnolias).

motelhell4The chainsaw duel that takes place during the climax of the film took multiple days of shooting to complete, and wasn’t even featured in the initial screenplay for the movie.

Speaking of, the screenplay of Motel Hell went through a number of rewrites and edits over the course of production. All in all, it took three years from the completion of the screenplay for the movie to hit the screen. The ultimate result was a far more comedic movie than what the original concept had been, which was at the behest of director Kevin Connor.

Motel Hell took more than a little influence from the hit 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including the prominent featuring of chainsaws and backwoods cannibalism in the plot. Tobe Hooper, who directed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was even at one point interested in directing the movie. Interestingly, the 1986 sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 bears some notable similarities to Motel Hell, and adopts its somewhat lighter tone.

motelhell3Motel Hell currently has an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 68% from critics and 49% from audiences. It was made on an estimated production budget of $3 million, on which it grossed just over $6.3 million in its domestic theatrical release.

Personally, I think Motel Hell is a weird little movie with a strange sense of humor, but it does feature some undeniably creepy images. The “farm” is the best example of this: a plot of land where the lead characters bury living victims up to their heads, then remove their vocal cords. The result is a small field dotted with heads that flail, writhe, and gasp helplessly as the victims are force-fed over days, and eventually harvested. Likewise, the iconic chainsaw fight, in which Vincent dons a pig’s head as a mask, is probably the most lasting image from the film, and is genuinely upsetting (despite being a bit goofy).

The idea of a story built around a successful, cannibalistic food business isn’t new by any means: there’s Sweeney Todd, Soylent Green, and The Corpse Grinders, just to name a few. However, I think Motel Hell shows the most detail of the process, and the way it is depicted is a bit more creepy than other, similar stories.

That said, Motel Hell is far from flawless. It wasn’t written initially as a comedy, and it definitely shows. Humor is a hard thing to inject after the fact, and I can’t think of anything that was honestly funny about the movie, though it definitely tried to establish a humorous tone.

Overall, I think the movie was built on an interesting concept, but the writers struggled to create an actual story out of it. It bogs down a bit in the middle, and despite a handful of highlights, is kind of dull on the whole. I definitely like the design and concept of the movie far more than I liked actually watching it, as I could never really wrap my head around the characters.  The cartoon reality and exaggerated characters presented were just a little too far removed from tangibility for my taste. That said, a lot of people seem to enjoy this one, so bad movie fans and people who like cult films should at least give it a chance.

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