Drive Angry

Drive Angry

Continuing my perusal through the works of Nicolas Cage, today I am getting into gear with 2011’s Drive Angry.

The plot of Drive Angry is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A vengeful father escapes from hell and chases after the men who killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter.

Drive Angry was directed, edited, and co-written by Patrick Lussier. As an editor, his credits include a number of later Wes Craven movies: notably Vampire In Brooklyn, Music of the Heart, Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3, Red Eye, and New Nightmare. As a screenwriter and director, he has done Dracula 2000, Dracula II: Ascension, Dracula III: Legacy, Terminator: Genisys (screenplay), and the remake of My Bloody Valentine (director). His co-writer for Drive Angry, Todd Farmer, previously contributed to the screenplays for Jason X and My Bloody Valentine, and also appeared in the film as Frank.

The cast of Drive Angry includes Nicolas Cage (Snake Eyes, Vampire’s Kiss, Ghost Rider, Stolen, Con Air, Face/Off, The Rock, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation.), William Fichtner (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ultraviolet, Wrong, The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, Equilibrium), Amber Heard (The Ward, 3 Days To Kill), David Morse (The Langoliers, The Green Mile, Disturbia, Contact), Billy Burke (Twilight, Fracture), and Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Maniac Cop, Night of the Creeps).

The cinematographer for Drive Angry was Brian Pearson, whose other shooting credits include Into The Storm, American Mary, Final Destination 5, Larry Cohen’s Masters of Horror entry Pick Me Up, and The Karate Dog.

The musical score for the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, who also composed music for Underworld: Blood Wars, Piranha 3D, Punisher: War Zone, From Justin To Kelly, and the acclaimed video game Bloodborne.

The special effects foreman for the production was William Purcell, whose previous effects credits included RoboCop, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Super Mario Bros., Speed 2: Cruise Control, and Young Guns.

The character of The Accountant, who is played by William Fichtner, is shown with a type of Greek coin called an obol. While obols were an ancient form of currency, they are famously remembered for their use in funerals: according to myth, they were placed in a deceased person’s mouth or eyes, so that they could pay for passage over the river Styx and into the afterlife. The Accountant is essentially a gatekeeper for the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead, so the presence of the obol is a nod to a relevant ancient custom.

Originally, Drive Angry was written and envisioned for an older actor, ideally someone who was in their 70’s. However, when Nicolas Cage approached the producers to express interest, they decided to go with him in the lead.

The advertising campaign for Drive Angry heavily emphasized that it was filmed in 3D, in an attempt to capitalize on a gimmick which was rapidly coming back into fashion. Apparently, the plan to film in 3D was a major reason why Nicolas Cage was interested in being involved in the first place.

Drive Angry was made on a production budget of $50 million, on which it took in a lifetime box office gross of roughly $28.9 million, making it a significant financial flop. Critically, it didn’t fare any better. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% from critics and 37% from audiences.

The first thing that absolutely must be mentioned about Drive Angry is that William Fichtner’s character of The Accountant is absolutely fantastic. He clearly had an absolute blast playing the character, and adds an immensely entertaining layer to the movie. Likewise, the villain, played by Billy Burke, is quite a bit of fun, and hams up his preacher character plenty. For that matter, the entire cast is loaded with entertaining character actors from top to bottom: I’m always kind of a sucker for David Morse and Tom Atkins, and having them pop up added a lot of entertaining color to film, regardless of how small their parts were.

In regards to the cast, however, Drive Angry has an unexpected weakness: Nicolas Cage.  For a man who has made a career out of screaming, manic performances, Cage could have been a little more crazy for a movie called Drive Angry. For whatever reason, he doesn’t really own the material, and plays his character as subdued and brooding rather than enraged. He is still serviceable enough, but he certainly doesn’t elevate the movie, which is a huge waste of both his, and the material’s, potentials.

As far as other weaknesses of the film go, at least in my opinion, the 3D work definitely wasn’t worth it. I assume that the budget had to be inflated to accommodate the costs of the technology, and the movie would have probably been more aesthetically pleasing and less of a financial loss without it. It is probably a product of the era, but the 3D sequences just don’t look very good today: they are a little too flat-looking by current standards, thanks to the rapid advancements of technology over the years. Not only are the 3D-emphasized sequences dated, but they are even more jarring given how many practical effects are used alongside them.

Speaking of which, the practical stuff, such as the aftermath gore effects and most of the car stunts, look great. If they weren’t marred by so much bad CGI mixed in, this would be a pretty cool effects movie. As it is, though, the effects style is really inconsistent, and leaves a lot to be desired.

Part of why these drawbacks are so frustrating is because there really is a good idea here: the plot and characters are generally fun, and they capture the spirit of an old-school grindhouse picture. However, the bad effects moments are a huge downer, and undercut all of the good elements here, to the point that it is a hard movie to recommend, despite how much it gets right.

For fans of the old grindhouse b-movie style, I think you’ll wind up in the same boat as me with Drive Angry: at times, you’ll be ecstatic with the positives, and at other times, you’ll be groaning and shaking your head at the negatives. I personally think that the peaks are worth the valleys in this case, but just barely. For casual movie watchers, I think it really comes down to how much you can tolerate bad CGI. If you are accustomed to modern disaster movies and Transformers sequels, this will come as a breath of fresh air, and you’ll be able to appreciate the positives of the film more. For effects sticklers, the negatives might be overwhelmingly distracting.


The Wicker Man (2006)

The Wicker Man

To continue my jaunt through the cinematic realm of Nicolas Cage, today I am going to look at the infamous 2006 remake of The Wicker Man.

The plot of The Wicker Man is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a small island discovers there’s a larger mystery to solve among the island’s secretive, neo-pagan community.

The Wicker Man is based on an acclaimed 1973 film of the same name starring Christopher Lee. That film was in turn a loose adaptation of the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner, though it was not initially formally credited as such. The 1973 film is widely regarded as a horror classic, and stands in sharp contrast to its 2006 remake.

The 2006 version of The Wicker Man was both written and directed by Neil LaBute, who has directed movies like Lakeview Terrace, Nurse Betty, the remake of Death At A Funeral, Possession, and a number of episodes of Hell On Wheels.

The cast of The Wicker Man includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Ghost Rider, Face/Off, The Rock, Drive Angry, Leaving Las Vegas, Stolen, National Treasure, Adaptation., Vampire’s Kiss, Snake Eyes), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, Interstellar, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show), Kate Beahan (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Flightplan), Frances Conroy (Scent of a Woman, The Crucible, Six Feet Under), and Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood, Hollywoodland).

The cinematographer for The Wicker Man was Paul Sarossy, whose other shooting credits include Charlie Bartlett, The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe, and notable television series like The Borgias and Copper.

The music for the film was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who is notably a frequent collaborator with David Lynch, scoring such works as Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. On top of his Lynch credits, Badalamenti provided music for movies like Auto Focus, Christmas Vacation, Cabin Fever, Secretary, The Beach, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3.

Both Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 The Wicker Man, and Christopher Lee, the film’s star, denounced the poor quality of the film’s remake. In 2011, Robin Hardy directed a sequel to his original film, called The Wicker Tree, which met with a reception almost as bad as the remake he denounced.

The original cut of The Wicker Man got an R-rating from the MPAA. Neil LaBute decided to make some minor changes to get a PG-13 for the theatrical release, in hopes that it would reach a wider audience. Interestingly, when the movie eventually released on DVD as an unrated version, not all of the footage was put back in: roughly four minutes from the original cut didn’t get re-inserted.

Nicolas Cage has claimed that the movie was intentionally made as an absurdist comedy, based on both his and LaBute’s vision. Some critics have agreed that it is a sort of black comedy, though very few who regard it as such think that the comedic elements were done well.

One of the key changes to the screenplay for this remake of The Wicker Man was the addition of the gender dynamic. The island is Summersisle is portrayed as a strict matriarchal system, where men are essentially used solely for breeding and labor.

Also, in the original iteration of The Wicker Man, the island is called “Summerisle”. Apparently, the change of the name to “Summersisle” for the remake was done because it was believed that Americans would have an easier time pronouncing it.

The Wicker Man was made on a production budget of $40 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of just under $39 million. The reception to the film, however, was damning. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 3.7/10, and has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 17% from audiences. It ultimately wound up with a number of Golden Raspberry Award nominations, including for Worst Picture and Worst Actor, but didn’t wind up winning any.

In 2016, Brian Collins of Birth.Movies.Death. wrote an elaborate defense of The Wicker Man, which makes some interesting points:

[The Wicker Man is] unfairly maligned and curiously lambasted for its remake status when the original has its own share of offbeat choices… this was one of the more inspired [remake] choices for a major studio to throw a lot of money at…

the original Wicker Man was a realtively (sic) obscure British film that barely saw release in the US…Warner Bros. wasn’t giving Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage 40 million dollars to remake a horror movie because they knew fans would show up – they saw potential in this strange tale being retold by these unique talents, regardless of the fact that it had been done before.

Is it a masterpiece? Heavens no.  But I wouldn’t offer the original that high of a compliment, either…I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the remake outright simply because it’s a big budget movie that played on 2,000 screens instead of this weird little British movie you saw on TV on a late night broadcast.

Collins hits on something in this piece that I noticed a lot when reading through contemporaneous reviews of the film. Over and over again, reviews harped on the movie being an “unnecessary” remake, as if the original was an untouchable fixture that couldn’t be improved. While I understand that the oversaturation of remakes is frustrating, remakes are not inherently bad: sometimes, they bring fresh, new visions to stories. On top of that, I would argue that a remake of The Wicker Man was necessary: it has brought the original movie back into the public consciousness in a big way, and raised it out of obscurity.

All of that said, a bias against remakes combined with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses don’t totally account for the negative reaction to The Wicker Man. Make no mistake, this is a bad movie, and for a litany of reasons.

As mentioned previously, Nicolas Cage has claimed that the vision for the film was always comedic, though absurdist. If that’s the case, something went wrong, and the humor doesn’t come across. People don’t laugh at this because it is inherently comedic, but because it is nonsensical, and punctuated by Cage’s outlandish performance. One critical response to the film (by MaryAnn Johansen of Flick Filosopher) put my feelings on this issue well:

I’d look more kindly on Neil LaBute’s profoundly silly movie… if I thought he meant any of it in jest, if any of it were winking at us even a little.

As much as Cage may claim that the production had comedic intentions from the outset, there are just no signs of those intentions on screen. The tone, the music, the supporting performances, the cinematography: pretty much every element of the film (outside of Cage) is played absolutely straight. While that would certainly be absurd if done with intention, Occam’s razor dictates that it is far more likely that Cage was off the rails on his own tangent with his quasi-comedic performance.

For those same reasons, it is impossible for me to write off the transparently misogynistic themes and portrays in The Wicker Man as satiric or comedic. The thesis of this film is essentially that a matriarchal society is inherently oppressive, and devoid of critical thought. You can almost read LaBute’s thoughts: “Of course a society led women is going to be irrational, right?” It is hard not to imagine Neil LaBute filming sequences of Nic Cage punching women without experiencing an element of catharsis, given the amount of disdain laced through this screenplay. The fact that LaBute alone made the decision to alter the island society from the original film to be a matriarchy is more than a little telling as to his feelings towards women and feminism, and the look isn’t good.

As far as positives go, I have to say that The Wicker Man does look good: if you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake it for an artfully crafted film. Likewise, I like the setting of Summersisle: there is a sense of tension and foreboding to it, which contrasts interestingly with the bright, natural images that make it up. In that way, it isn’t unlike the bees that inhabit it: they are aesthetically pleasing, but dangerous.

While it may be true that critics were harsher to this movie based on its status as a remake, there are more than a handful of problems with it. It bows to countless genre cliches, promotes a misogynistic narrative, and has a bafflingly unfocused tone, and that’s without even touching on the perplexing, erratic performance from Nicolas Cage. It ultimately deserves the derision and ridicule that has been levied at it over the years, despite a few redeeming elements.

Much like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, The Wicker Man falls in the rare category of bad movies that fancy themselves as art pieces, which carries a uniquely off-kilter tone. It is the sort of movie that you can truly marvel at, and get lost wrapping your brain around just how ill-conceived it was.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think this film’s reputation precedes it. If you think you might enjoy watching this movie, you probably will. Nicolas Cage fanatics are sure to enjoy his zany antics, to say the least, and absolutely have to give it a watch.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Today, I’m going to delve into yet another Nicolas Cage feature: Brian De Palma’s 1998 casino thriller, Snake Eyes.

The plot of Snake Eyes is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A shady police detective finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy at an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino.

Snake Eyes was directed and produced by Brian De Palma, an acclaimed auteur who has been behind films like Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Mission To Mars, Blow Out, Dressed To Kill, Carrie, and Body Double, among others.

The screenwriter for Snake Eyes was David Koepp, who penned flicks like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room, Secret Window, Spider-Man, The Shadow, Jurassic Park, I Come In Peace, Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible.

The primary cast of the film includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation., The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, The Cotton Club), Gary Sinise (Apollo 13, The Green Mile, Forrest Gump, Mission To Mars, The Stand), John Heard (Home Alone, CHUD, Cat People, After Hours, The Pelican Brief), Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Sin City, Night At The Museum, Sucker Punch, American Gangster), Kevin Dunn (Veep, Warrior, Small Soldiers, Godzilla), Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass, Death To Smoochy, Rounders, Volcano), Luis Guzman (Waiting…, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Oz, The Substitute, Boogie Nights), and Mike Starr (Ed Wood, Goodfellas, Dumb and Dumber, Black Dynamite).

The cinematographer for Snake Eyes was Stephen H. Burum, whose other shooting credits include Hoffa, Mystery Men, The Shadow, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and The Entity, as well as a number of other Brian De Palma movies, including Mission To Mars, Carlito’s Way, Raising Cane, and The Untouchables.

The editor on the film was Bill Pankow, who is known for cutting Drumline, Money Train, Double Team, American Ultra, Feel The Noise, Max, Carlito’s Way, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Body Double, and The Untouchables.

The musical score for Snake Eyes was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also provided music for the movies Femme Fatale, The Adventures of Milo & Otis, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and The Last Emperor.

Snake Eyes is perhaps most well known for its striking opening sequence, which is filmed and edited to appear as though it is all one continuous, 20-minute shot. While the shots are very long, the sequence has a 8 well hidden cuts, with the longest unbroken stretch coming in at roughly 12 minutes.

The original ending for the movie has Atlantic City completely destroyed by a hurricane, and the casino dramatically destroyed by the initial storm surge. Though the major destruction sequences were cut, references to the storm are peppered throughout the screenplay.

Both Will Smith and Al Pacino were offered Sinise’s antagonist role in the film. Pacino outright turned it down, while Will Smith required a huge paycheck to take on the part, which was too high for the production to take on.

The reported production budget for Snake Eyes was $73 million, though Brian De Palma has claimed that it actually came in under budget, at $68 million. In its lifetime theatrical run, the movie managed to take in just under $104 million, easily making back its budget.

The reception to Snake Eyes from critics and audiences wasn’t nearly as good. Currently, the movie holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 35% from audiences. Among the film’s harshest critics was Roger Ebert, who, despite adoring the opening sequence, said that “it’s the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot.”

In the wake of the 2016 documentary De Palma, which delves into the filmography and life of the acclaimed director, Birth.Movies.Death. writer Dominic Griffin decided to take another look at the popularly derided Snake Eyes:

Snake Eyes is a thrilling look at a world too far gone for salvation, and unless you’re a sincere Femme Fatale apologist, the last great film Brian De Palma made.

It is impossible to talk about Snake Eyes, positively or negatively, without addressing its opening sequence. While its style has been nearly universally praised, there have been some people who have complained of its gimmickry. Personally, I think the faux-seamless sequence works excellently to portray the event, particularly given how many times it is brought back up throughout the movie. There is a distinct sense that you, as the audience, should be paying attention to the details of the event: you are seeing all of the minutiae for a reason, or else it wouldn’t be shown. While there are certainly some issues with the film, the opening certainly isn’t one of them. If anything, it has cemented it as a footnote in film history.

Nicolas Cage is, to put it mildly, a divisive figure in the world of Hollywood acting. Plenty will claim that he is a one-note rodeo clown devoid of genuine ability, beyond having exaggerated facial features and a distinctive scream. Personally, I am a bit of a Cage apologist: when he is in his element and sticking to what he does well, he can bring energy to a movie better than just about anyone else. With Snake Eyes, I think he is perfectly cast: everything about him screams sleazeball. His naturally erratic behavior, the way he sardonically delivers dialogue, and his shifty physical demeanor all fit the character excellently, to the point that I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. The ridiculous suit he is put in for most of the movie would look downright comedic on anyone else, but seems to fit his personality like a second skin.

Though many critics adamantly disagree with this, I personally like that the big “reveal” is done early in the movie, primarily because it feels genuinely unexpected and in sharp contrast to genre expectations. Likewise, I think that the revelation to the audience (and not to the protagonist) adds a level of tension to the two characters’ interactions that wouldn’t be there otherwise, which makes for compelling viewing. In responding to criticism of the reveal decision, De Palma has said that “the problem is that it isn’t about who did it. It’s a mystery about a relationship, two people, and how finding that out affects their relationship.” This all reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous description of the difference between “shock” and “suspense,” which you can see here:

If the character reveal in Snake Eyes had been saved for the climax, it would have only served for traditional shock value: the bomb suddenly going off under the table. However, De Palma chose to reveal to the audience that the bomb was present. The lead character is none the wiser, but now the audience knows the truth and the stakes involved, and there is real suspense at play.

While there are quite a few things that I like about Snake Eyes, it has some pretty significant issues that hinder it from being a really great film. First and foremost among those issues is the story’s pacing, which loses steam rapidly as the third act gets going. The more the movie leans towards being a traditional action flick, the less unique and interesting it is, and the entire conclusion feels more like a Con Air set piece than the conclusion to an innovative thriller. It just doesn’t do the movie justice, if you ask me.

On the subject of the ending, there are a number of critics who seem to believe that the originally planned ending, which sees the casino and Atlantic City totally destroyed by a hurricane, might have saved the film. Personally, I just don’t see it. I think that the originally planned ending would have been hokey and way too on-the-nose with its messaging, and might have hurt the movie even more than the half-assed action film conclusion that we currently have.

Overall, I think it is a fair assessment to say that Snake Eyes is a step above the typical Hollywood fare in terms of style and entertainment, thanks in large part to De Palma’s ambitious opening and Cage’s performance. However, the pacing issues definitely keep it a step below being a classic. That said, I can certainly understand why so many critics were disappointed with it: De Palma is capable of a whole lot better than this, and there are some serious flashes of brilliance here. Unfortunately, those peaks make the valleys seem all the deeper.

As far as a recommendation goes, I highly advocate watching the opening sequence for sure. While Birdman and Rope are more popular examples of long takes with hidden cuts, I think the Snake Eyes opening adds more to the movie as a whole than the long takes in those flicks: it has more thematic purpose here than just being a gimmick, or providing a third person omniscient POV. Apart from that, die hard Nic Cage and De Palma fans should definitely watch the whole movie. While it isn’t great by any means, I think that it is worth the time for the highlights.

Con Air

Con Air

Today, I’m going to take a look at the notorious Nicolas Cage action flick, Con Air.

The plot of Con Air is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Newly paroled ex-con and former U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe finds himself trapped in a prisoner transport plane when the passengers seize control.

The screenplay for Con Air is credited to Scott Rosenberg, whose other credits include Kangaroo Jack, High Fidelity, Disturbing Behavior, and Gone In Sixty Seconds, among others.

The director for the film was rookie helmer Simon West, who has gone on to direct movies like Stolen, When A Stranger Calls, The Mechanic, The Expendables 2, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. However, perhaps his best known credit is directing the infamous 1987 music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The huge cast of character actors that makes up Con Air includes the likes of Nicolas Cage (Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, Left Behind, Leaving Las Vegas, Ghost Rider, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out The Dead, Adaptation.), John Cusack (Grosse Pointe BlankHigh Fidelity, 1408, The Raven, Being John Malkovich, 2012, War, Inc.), John Malkovich (Rounders, Eragon, Burn After Reading), Ving Rhaimes (Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible II, Mission: Impossible III), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon), Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hell On Wheels), Danny Trejo (Machete, Machete Kills, Anaconda, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado), and Dave Chappelle (Half-Baked, Chappelle’s Show).

The cinematographer for Con Air was David Tattersall, who also shot such films as The Green Mile, Speed Racer, Next, Die Another Day, Theodore Rex, Soldier, and The Majestic, among others.

Con Air ultimately had three credited editors: Glen Scantlebury (Stolen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Twixt, Armageddon), Steve Mirkovich (Hardcore Henry, 16 Blocks, Broken Arrow, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince of Darkness, Cool World, The Astronaut’s Wife), and Chris Lebenzon (Eragon, Big Fish, Enemy of the State, Mars Attacks, Ed Wood, Hudson Hawk, Wolfen, Top Gun, Days of Thunder).

The musical score for Con Air is credited to both Mark Mancina (Moana, Shooter, Training Day, Twister, Speed, Speed 2: Cruise Control) and Trevor Rabin (12 Rounds, Snakes On A Plane, Torque, National Treasure, Kangaroo Jack, Deep Blue Sea). Apparently, due to his commitment to Speed 2: Cruise Control, Mancina didn’t have time to complete his work on Con Air, and Rabin filled in to complete the project.

Con Air was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the most prolific and popular film and television producers of the past few decades. His television shows include CSI, CSI: Miami, Cold Case, CSI: NY, and The Amazing Race, and just a handful of his film credits are The Rock, National Treasure, Armageddon, Pirates of the Caribbean. Top Gun, Bad Boys, and Days of Thunder.

In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, John Cusack justified his decision to take part in Con Air, despite not actually liking the movie:

I use those kinds of films to get leverage…you wouldn’t think Con Air had anything to do with Max, but in my career it does. It’s doing Con Air, or doing romantic comedies, that makes Max possible. The bad stuff you just try to make as good as you can.

In an appearance on Inside The Actor’s Studio, comedian Dave Chappelle claimed that he improvised nearly all of the dialogue for his minor part in Con Air.

In the credits, Con Air is dedicated to Phil Swartz. Swartz was an effects worker for the production who was killed in an on-set accident, in which a plane fell off of its rigging.

The song “How Do I Live,” which is featured prominently in Con Air, had the rare claim of being nominated for both Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and Worst Original Song at the Razzie Awards. However, it wound up winning neither distinction.

Con Air was made on a production budget of $75 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of just over $224 million, making it significantly profitable. Critically, though, it was a bit of a mixed bag: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 54% from critics and 75% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user score of 6.8.

One of Con Air‘s prominent advocates was Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3/4 stars in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.

In this case, I’m not sure if I completely agree with Ebert’s opinion, particularly on the point of the “quick setups” and action sequences. I think that Con Air is one of the key action movies that is most guilty of action over-saturation. Essentially, there are so many set ups, explosions, and grandiose moments, that ultimately each of their impacts is diluted. If a movie is nothing but explosions and gunfire, then those moments will be less notable that a single dramatic explosion in a different film. At the same time, it can be said that the constant flashes can keep an audiences attention. However, I tend to think of Con Air as more like a strobe light: after a few minutes, the effect has worn off, and the moments that should be thrilling just feel normalized and repetitive.

As far as positives go, it is hard to get better than the rogue’s gallery of character actors that populate the eponymous plane. Led by John Malkovich, the whole cast of villains is eccentric, colorful, volatile, and beyond over-the-top. Between the lot of them, there is more scenery-chewing than we might ever see on screen again. On the flip side, however, is Nicolas Cage: perhaps the king of the cinematic freak-out. Unfortunately, however, his character here is polite to the point of near stoicism, and even when unleashed, never quite goes wide-eyed in Cage-y fury. If anything, he is the closest thing to a stable presence in the film, which doesn’t suit him in the slightest. Luckily, he does use an absolutely outrageous interpretation of an Alabama accent, which has cemented this as one of his worst performances regardless.

Thanks to its frequent appearances on cable, I assume that most people have caught Con Air before, or know of its reputation. I don’t have to mention that this is a big, silly action movie with the depth of a kiddie pool. I will say that it is anything but tasteful, and hasn’t aged terribly well in a multitude of ways. Most surprisingly, though, is that I found it to be not quite as exciting as I remembered on this particular re-watch. It is still a pretty fun ride as far as blockbuster fare goes, particularly in today’s market. However, I think this might be the rare movie that I think is better to experience in clips and highlights, or left relegated to fond memories.



Today, I’m going to take a look at Kevin Smith’s 2014 creature feature, Tusk.

The plot of Tusk is summarized on IMDb as follows:

When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.

Tusk was written, directed, and edited by Kevin Smith, who is known for films like Chasing Amy, Clerks, Clerks 2, Mallrats, Jersey Girl, Red State, and Dogma, as well as his numerous successful podcasts, television shows, comic books, and live Q+A events.

The primary cast of Tusk is made up of Michael Parks (Red State, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill), Justin Long (Dodgeball, Drag Me To Hell, Accepted, Galaxy Quest), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I., The Spoils Before Dying, Secondhand Lions, Pay It Forward), Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6, Run All Night), and Johnny Depp (Yoga Hosers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, Black Mass, Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands).

The cinematographer on Tusk was James Laxton, whose other credits include Moonlight (which netted him an Academy Award nomination), Yoga Hosers, Bad Milo, and Holidays.

The musical score for the film was composed by Christopher Drake, who also provided music for Yoga Hosers and Holidays, as well as a number of animated DC movies like Batman: Under The Red Hood and Batman: Year One.

Tusk was distributed theatrically by A24, which was at the time an eccentric independent distributor that was building a positive reputation. Today, it is a renowned brand in independent cinema: it boasted the Best Picture winner Moonlight, as well as acclaimed films like The Witch, Swiss Army Man, 20th Century Woman, Room, Green Room, The Lobster, Ex Machina, The Rover, Under the Skin, and Enemy.

The bizarre creature effects for Tusk were provided by Robert Kurtzman, whose other credits include It Follows, John Dies At The End, Bubba Ho-Tep, Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, Spawn, Scream, In The Mouth of Madness, Intruder, The People Under The Stairs, and From Dusk Till Dawn, among many others. He was recommended to Kevin Smith for the project by special effects guru Gregory Nicotero, who turned down the job due to schedule conflicts with other projects.

The idea for Tusk came to Kevin Smith after discussing a prank Gumtree advertisement on his flagship podcast, SModcast. The bizarre advertisement offered free board to a housemate in exchange for wearing a walrus suit for 2 hours a day, and fully performing the part during that time.

Tusk was the first entry in Kevin Smith’s proposed True North trilogy: three movies with similar horror themes and common characters set in Western Canada. The second of these was Yoga Hosers, which featured a number of returning elements from Tusk. The third film in the series, a Jaws parody called Moose Jaws, has still not begun filming as of May 2017, likely due to the overwhelmingly negative reception to Yoga Hosers.

In order to gauge his fanbase as to whether there was enough interest for him to make Tusk, Kevin Smith launched a hashtag campaign. Anyone could respond on Twitter with either #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo to indicate whether they thought he should take on the outlandish concept.

Tusk was made on an estimated production budget of $3 million, on which it managed to gross only $1.8 million in a limited theatrical run. Critically, the movie didn’t fare any better: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 41% from critics and 36% from audiences.

As you would certainly expect, Tusk is weird by design, on the virtue of its concept. Accordingly, it features some of the strangest makeup and creature effects in recent years, which is fortunately compellingly strange and unnerving. Designer Robert Kurtzman definitely outdid himself with this body horror execution of a humanoid walrus, and its presence is arguably the highlight of the film.

As far as other positives of the film go, I would be remiss not to mention the late Michael Parks. Parks, who previously starred in Smith’s religious thriller Red State, is firing on all cylinders for his unhinged role in Tusk. Not an ounce of scenery goes unchewed by Parks, who nearly makes the movie on his own. Particularly in the first act of the film, he manages to act circles around Justin Long, and builds an immense amount of tension through his storytelling and body language. However, a lot of the tension dissipates as the movie goes on, and changes focus to other characters. Unfortunately, by the film’s supposed climax, the movie has already peaked, and is significantly hindered by weaker elements that whittle on its effectiveness throughout.

Mark Jenkins, in his review of Tusk for NPR, had the following choice words for the film:

Tusk is an overextended, tonally incoherent joke that would make viewers squirm even if it didn’t involve a bloody and demented medical experiment.

While Parks is impressively suave as the absurd obsessive, the other performances range from unpersuasive to distracting. Long is off-pitch throughout, and a slumming, uncredited superstar functions only as a half-comprehensible in-joke.

That review hits on what are, by far, my two biggest issues with Tusk. The first of them is the “uncredited superstar,” Johnny Depp, who puts in what might be the worst performance of his career. In a word, his portrayal of a French Canadian detective is unbearable. His facial prosthesis look ridiculous, his accent is all over the place, and his presence and performance grind the movie to an unnecessary stop. Honestly, Tusk would have been a better overall feature if his point-of-view section had been excised altogether. For the life of me, I can’t fathom why it wasn’t left on the cutting room floor, outside of Depp’s supposed marketability.

The second issue that Jenkins brings up that I emphatically agree with is his assessment that the film is “overextended.” On top of the pacing troubles brought on by the aforementioned Johnny Depp segment, everything after the intriguing first act setup feels bloated and stretched, like Smith was having trouble making a full feature out of the concept. Progress happens slowly once the second act begins, and the shifts in perspective make it feel even slower. I honestly think, however, that there was enough promise and material for this idea to make a pretty kick-ass short film, but the necessary run time to hit feature-length brought about a lot of the problems that hinder Tusk. With some of the extended gags omitted, Johnny Depp’s part reduced, and the rescue attempt shortened, I think the total run-time could have been brought down to about an hour, and been a pretty intriguing flick to plug into HBO or Netflix. As it stands, however, the pacing leaves it a bit on the dull side.

Overall, I do think that Tusk is a fair bit better than the mess of Yoga Hosers, and had some initial promise. The effects are pretty decent, Parks puts in a chillingly strange performance, and there is certainly an intriguing setup for the story. However, the screenplay has some serious pacing issues, which are exacerbated by a mind-numbingly terrible performance from Johnny Depp, and a generally very unlikable lead character. I do think that the movie was written off prematurely by some based on its concept alone, but ultimately, I think that the failure of this flick is 100% on Smith’s screenplay and dual director/editor role. If he had someone else take on any number of those roles, he might have had a mitigating force to keep things in check. Alas, that’s not how it went down.

As far as recommendations go, Tusk is complicated. Kevin Smith fans certainly should check it out, as this was basically made for their benefit. Beyond that, body horror fans might as well check it out for the effects, but the rest of the film will probably leave a lot to be desired. As for everyone else, I think this is a toss-up. I have talked to people who have loved this movie that I didn’t expect, and people who passionately hated it that I thought might go the other way. If the concept intrigues you, I say dive in at your own risk.

I Know Who Killed Me

I Know Who Killed Me

Today, I’m going to take a look at the disastrous Lindsay Lohan vehicle, I Know Who Killed Me.

The plot of I Know Who Killed Me is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young woman who was missing reappears, but she claims to be someone else entirely.

I Know Who Killed Me was directed by Chris Sivertson, whose handful of credits include All Cheerleaders Die, The Lost, and writing the screenplay for the movie Marauders. The sole screenwriter for this movie, Jeff Hammond, notably has no other listed credits on IMDb.

The central cast for the film is made up of Lindsay Lohan (Machete, Herbie Fully Loaded, The Parent Trap), Julia Ormond (Mad Men, Legends of the Fall), Neal McDonough (Minority Report, Timeline, Flags of our Fathers), and Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker, Flight, Jarhead).

The cinematographer for I Know Who Killed Me was John R. Leonetti, whose credits include The Conjuring, Insidious, The Scorpion King, Joe Dirt, Mortal Kombat, Child’s Play 3, and The Mask.

I Know Who Killed Me‘s editor was Lawrence Jordan, who also cut the movies Jack Frost, Fallen, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Are We There Yet?, Fifty Shades of Black, and Furry Vengeance.

The musical score for the film was composed by Joel McNeely, who also provided music for the films Holes, Vegas Vacation, Virus, Soldier, A Million Ways To Die In The West, and The Avengers.

Reportedly, Linday Lohan often no-showed or arrived late to set during the filming of I Know Who Killed Me, to the point that body doubles were used for a number of sequences. Her substance abuse issues also eventually impacted the film’s promotion, as she had a DUI arrest just before a scheduled appearance to plug the movie on The Tonight Show.

I Know Who Killed Me wound up setting a record for the most Golden Raspberry Awards for a single movie, winning 8 of its total of 9 nominations. However, the record was toppled only a few years later by Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill.

The original ending of I Know Who Killed Me revealed that the entire story was the content of a college student’s paper. However, the ending was so reviled by test audiences that it was re-cut, and now only exists as a deleted scene on the movie’s DVD release.

I Know Who Killed Me was featured on one of the earliest episodes of the lauded bad movie podcast, The Flop House, which is now one of the most beloved podcasts on the subject of bad movies.

The production budget for I Know Who Killed Me was reported to be $12 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of $9.6 million, which made it a significant financial failure. However, the film’s critical failure was even more dramatic: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 3.6/10, alongside unenviable Rotten Tomatoes scores of 7% from critics and 25% from audiences. In her brutal review for the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman wrote that:

No review could really do justice to the monumental trashiness of this mess; it really has to be seen to be believed. Although if Lohan is lucky, no one will bother.

One of the most prominent elements in I Know Who Killed Me is its vivid and repetitive use of two colors: red and blue. While colors can be used artfully in films to accentuate the story’s tone, a character’s traits and emotions, or a setting’s general atmosphere, the way color is used in I Know Who Killed Me is far beyond over the top. Not only is there no subtlety in the application of the colors, but the colors are used so universally that they lose their meaning, and just blend into the background palette of the movie.

For instance, the blue roses that appear in the film should have always stood out due to their uniqueness: however, they blend easily into the background of a movie that is constantly punctuated by blue objects and backdrops. If the backdrops had even been more subtle blues, or colors that would compliment and accentuate the blue of the flowers, the effect might have worked. Unfortunately, the over-saturation of colors in this film serves to drain them of their stylistic meaning, which is ultimately a disservice to the film as a whole. Movies like Hero, The Neon Demon, and La La Land have all managed to balance vivid, saturated color palettes in a way that the colors still carry some meaning, while still being visibly prominent. I think that the director here understood that color can be powerful, and wanted to emulate the visual style of Blue Velvet, but lacked the restraint or understanding of how to use colors effectively in the film. The result is an overstimulating mess of blues and reds.

There is one detail about the plot of the film that still particularly bothers me. Once it is revealed that (spoilers) there are, in fact, two sisters, the concept of “twin stigmata” is presented to explain the injuries to both girls, despite only one of them being abducted. Despite “stigmatic twins” being an unproven, supernatural idea, it is taken at face value as fact by more than one character. There is never any attempt to elaborate on why these twins have this condition, or quite how it works: it is basically just a plot device that isn’t dug into any deeper. They could have mentioned offhand that the mother was experimented on or something, but there isn’t any indication to that effect.

Related to that same twist, the supposed baby-switching done by Aubrey’s father doesn’t make much sense when put under a microscope. How was he able to hide the news of his child’s death from his wife? How did the hospital let him walk away with another woman’s child? How did a woman who had given birth to two children walk out with one, with no question from the doctors and nurses? Did the hospital not report the death of the real Aubrey, allowing the replacement to use her social security number and identity? There are a lot of leaps in logic involved in the story, that can only be explained with mass incompetence or mass bribery, neither of which seem terribly realistic.

The most common criticisms I have heard about I Know Who Killed Me all relate to the gratuitous stripping sequences, which were heavily featured in the film’s trailer. Compared to their relevance to the film’s plot, these two sequences take up way too much of the run-time of the film, which makes it clear what the motivation behind this feature was. On top of the stripping sequences, there is also an unnecessary and unnerving sex sequence, in which Aubrey’s mother creepily listens in while Dakota and Aubrey’s boyfriend have sex in the room above her. Again, this sequence goes on for far too long, and makes it clear that the production team was trying to eek out every ounce of potential erotica they could from this movie, with the limitation of not being able to show Lindsay Lohan nude. Not only is the exploitative nature transparent, but it is also done in such a way that watching it is actively annoying, thanks to one of the most terrible film soundtracks that I can recall.

Something that I genuinely didn’t expect from this movie was the sheer quantity of explicit gore. I anticipated that the violence would mostly be implied and off-screen, not unlike the sexual content in your average PG-13 feature. However, this movie features explicit, brutal violence, including the detailed removal of fingers. The most grisly sequence features a block of dry ice, which is used to destroy limbs with a clamping mechanism. This leaves behind a nasty, frostbitten wound, which is shown in nauseating detail. If there is anything positive to say about the film, it is that the makeup artists nailed that particular effect.

Perhaps the strangest and most unexpected part of the film, however, is the introduction of the quasi-magical prosthetic limbs that replace Lindsay Lohan’s various mangled and amputated body parts.  There is an entire leg replacement which is fully automated, and functions exactly like a human leg as long as it is charged overnight. It didn’t even require a significant amount of physical therapy, because the timeline of the film between when the prosthetics are attached and when Dakota functions normally is very short. Likewise, Dakota is gifted with a superpowered robot hand, which is more advanced than most hand replacements found in science fiction films. Not only is is fully articulated, but it is somehow connected to her nerves, and thus functions exactly like a normal hand, but with significantly more strength.

As you might expect, one of the biggest issues with I Know Who Killed Me is its star. Lindsay Lohan may not be the worst actress ever to show up on screen, but she certainly can’t carry a movie on her own. The only way that this film was going to work was with a dynamic, standout lead performance, and even then it would be a long-shot. Lohan simply wasn’t the right choice to prop this flick up. Ultimately, she didn’t even help with the box office, and was a hindrance to the production if anything. I’m curious what the team for the movie thinks now: should they have gone with a talented up and comer, rather than a celebrity? Do they blame the film’s failure entirely on her, despite the movie’s other issues? I think there could be an interesting tale behind this flick, but I’m not sure if the world will ever hear it.

Honestly, I believe that there is the potential for an interesting identity mistaken identity / serial killer movie beneath the mess of I Know Who Killed Me, but it is buried deep beneath the sexualized focus on Lohan, Lohan’s general lack of acting chops, and the overall shoddy directing decisions and screenplay issues that make up the film. I don’t think the movie is quite enough fun to recommend even to bad movie fans, so I would say it is a hard pass from me for anyone who is considering giving this one a watch.


Johnny Mnemonic

Johnny Mnemonic

Today, I’m going to take a look at William Gibson’s 1997 cyberpunk flick, Johnny Mnemonic.

The plot of Johnny Mnemonic is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A data courier, literally carrying a data package inside his head, must deliver it before he dies from the burden or is killed by the Yakuza.

Johnny Mnemonic is based on a 1981 short story of the same name by influential science fiction writer William Gibson, who is regarded as the father of cyberpunk. Gibson also penned the screenplay for this loose screen adaptation of the work, and it remains his only screenplay credit to date. However, he now disowns the film, and claims what made it to the screen wasn’t his work.

Johnny Mnemonic was directed by Robert Longo, who is best known as an acclaimed painter and sculptor. However, he directed a handful of music videos throughout the 1980s, including R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” as well as an episode of Tales From The Crypt. On the experience of directing the film, he has stated that “it was f—ing horrible. Johnny Mnemonic is about 65 percent of what I hoped it would be.”

The central cast of Johnny Mnemonic includes the likes of Keanu Reeves (The Matrix, John Wick, The Neon Demon, Speed, Point Break), Ice-T (Leprechaun In The Hood, Surviving The Game, Law & Order: SVU, Tank Girl), Dolph Lundren (Showdown In Little Tokyo, Rocky IV, The Punisher, I Come In Peace, Red Scorpion), Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers, Saw, DragonHeart), Henry Rollins (Heat, He Never Died), and Takeshi Kitano (The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Kikujiro, Brother).

The cinematographer for the film was Francois Protat, whose other credits include the virtual reality horror flick Brainscan and the infamous death-centric comedy Weekend at Bernie’s.

Johnny Mnemonic‘s editor was Ronald Sanders, who also cut the films A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Fly, Coraline, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Scanners, and Videodrome, among others.

The musical score for the film was composed by Brad Fiedel, whose other credits include True Lies, True Believer, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Fright Night, The Terminator, The Serpent and The Rainbow, and Fright Night Part 2.

Due to a miscue on set, Dolph Lundgren at one point actually punched co-star Henry Rollins in the face during a take. Rollins has since described the experience:

[He hit] like a UPS delivery truck. My DNA uncoiled. I found a new religion. He hit me so hard and it just stopped. My head took the entirety of the weight. I was like, ‘Wow, my thinking is 20 percent slower. I’m running for office!”

Dolph Lundgren’s casting in the film was allegedly in opposition to director Robert Longo’s wishes, and was an order from the producers to try to sell the movie to more demographics and markets. Longo has since claimed that he would like to cut a “45-minute version of [Johnny Mnemonic] without Dolph.”

Keanu Reeves wound up nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for his lead performance in Johnny Mnemonic, though he didn’t wind up winning it.

Both William Gibson and Robert Longo initially wanted to make a low-budget independent movie out of the story of Johnny Mnemonic, but were ultimately only able to garner interest in a wide release, high-budget potential blockbuster. Ultimately, both men were unhappy with the result that hit theaters.

As a tie-in to the movie, a Johnny Mnemonic full motion video game was produced and released for DOS, Mac, and Windows 3.x. The era of FMV games is now looked back on with widespread scorn, and Johnny Mnemonic is regarded as one of the most prominently terrible games of the lot.

Johnny Mnemonic is partially remembered today because of its distinct, bright orange VHS tape, which made it visibly stand out from the typical black tapes.

Johnny Mnemonic was made on a production budget of $26 million, on which it brought in a lifetime domestic gross of just over $19 million. International reports have it grossing as much as $50 million, but I couldn’t find a consistent source to verify the foreign market numbers.

Critically, the film did not fare well: it currently holds a 5.6/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 13% from critics and 31% from audiences.

First off, it has to be said that if Johnny Mnemonic is anything, it is imaginative. The concept behind the film is punctuated with some interesting technological futurism, though a lot of it is undercut with some less than ideal effects. Also, as with most attempts in fiction to envision the future, going back years later makes the film look a bit goofy, and it is impossible not to compare the technological predictions with our actual progresses.

All of that said, the biggest issues with Johnny Mnemonic go far beyond the goofy-looking technologies: if anything, the cyborg dolphins and immersive VR internet helmets are the entertainment high water mark of the flick.

The first and biggest issue with Johnny Mnemonic is its abysmally slow pacing, which is nothing short of agonizing. However, I think there are some interesting reasons for why the film’s plot moves as slow as it does. First off, the production was dealing with both a first-time screenwriter and a first-time director, which can make for a bad recipe out of the gate. On top of that, it is worth noting that the initial vision for Johnny Mnemonic was to make an independent short film. I assume that the screenplay wasn’t totally re-written to make it longer once that plan changed, but that more content was plugged in wherever it could fit. This, as you can imagine, can lead to a slower, more bloated pacing once put to film.  Beyond even that, it sounds like the studio and producers implemented additional pressure at the last minute to add even more into the movie, like the prominent role for Dolph Lundgren. Frankly, it would be impressive if the movie didn’t feel sluggish and overstuffed at that point.

However, surprisingly, that last-minute addition of Dolph Lundgren is almost a savior for the entire film: he brings energy to the screen whenever he shows up, and got me (at least somewhat) re-invested in the story. His performance primarily exists to let him chew scenery and spit one-liners, which is exactly what you would want from a zany villain character. It is also worth mentioning that Ice-T is his usual self here, which is a breath of fresh air for such an un-charismatic movie. Unfortunately, neither Ice-T or Dolph get any significant screen time, which is a huge shortcoming for the flick.

Johnny Mnemonic contains some cool futuristic ideas, has a pretty sleek, grounded science-fiction design, and boasts an amazingly cheesy performance from Dolph Lundgren, but the pacing is so brutally slow that any positive qualities of the flick are thoroughly blotted out. I can recommend looking up some clips of the movie, or maybe an abridged supercut summary, but sitting through the entire run-time is pretty damn brutal. Unless you are a die-hard fan of William Gibson, Keanu Reeves, or one of the other players involved, this is a pretty skippable feature.


Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.