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Spawn

Spawn

Today, I’m going to explore the dark and ill-received 1997 superhero film, Spawn.

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

An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.

The character of Spawn was originally created by comic icon and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, and first appeared in Spawn #1 in May of 1992. Spawn was (and is) the face of Image comics, an independent comic book company that is creator-owned, and prides itself on treating artists fairly: most distinctly by allowing them to retain creative copyrights. The original founders (including McFarlane) primarily defected from Marvel comics, where they felt that they didn’t get the credit or pay they deserved. The character of Spawn includes a handful of elements that trace back to McFarlane’s time working on (and creating) Marvel properties, most notably the Spider-Man antagonist/antihero, Venom.

This film adaptation of Spawn was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, an experienced visual effects artist who previously worked on The Abyss, Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II, and Jurassic Park. However, he did not (and still doesn’t) have much directing experience, outside of a handful of television movies and shorts that came years later.

The screenplay for the film was penned by Alan McElroy, who also wrote Halloween 4, Wrong Turn, The Marine, and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie, and was also involved with Todd McFarlane in the creation of the subsequent Spawn animated series.

The cast of Spawn in primarily made up of Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, The West Wing, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Wall Street, Gettysburg), John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., The Happening, John Wick, The Pest, Carlito’s Way), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Theresa Randale (Space Jam, Bad Boys), Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, The Exorcist III), Melinda Clarke (The O.C., Nikita), and Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary, New Nightmare, Apollo 13).

The cinematographer for Spawn was Guillermo Navarro, who has also shot such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Jackie Brown, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Night At The Museum.

The film required the work of two primary editors: Michael Knue (House, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, Rocky V, The Ring 2) and Todd Busch, an assistant and visual effects editor who has worked on movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lake Placid, X-Men, Beowulf, and Terminator 3.

The music for Spawn was composed by Graeme Revell, whose credits include Sin City, Pitch Black, Daredevil, Red Planet, Tank Girl, Street Fighter, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hard Target, and the remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Walking Tall, and The Fog.

Spawn was notably the first superhero movie with a black lead, as it predated the better-received Blade by a year. However, another property was even closer on its heels: Shaq’s infamous Steel, which released in theaters just two weeks after Spawn, and to even less acclaim.

It reportedly took an entire 8 months of work, from storyboard to completion, to nail down the Clown to Violator transformation sequence. Like much of the effects work in the film, it was a hybrid of practical work and CGI imagery, though it leaned quite heavily on the CGI.

In a show of dedication to his craft, John Leguizamo actually ate the “maggots” during the sequence where Clown eats a pizza from the trash. However, this is only half-true: the on-screen maggots were, in fact, mealworms.

Spawn reportedly went through a lengthy battle in order to get its PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which required countless changes to dialogue and violent sequences to appease the notoriously fickle and conservative ratings board. However, in retrospect, the decision to pursue a PG-13 is now widely criticized, and often blamed for the film’s poor reception by fans and casual audiences alike.

Spawn’s cape, one of the character’s most distinguishing features, is shown only sparingly throughout the film. However, when it does, it is an entire digital creation, with no mixed practical elements involved. This is in contrast to the previously mentioned Clown to Violator sequence, which hybridized practical effects with digital enhancements.

While Spawn hardly met with any critical praise, it did help launch a well-regarded animated series on HBO in the years after the film’s release, which ultimately won two Emmys over its run.

In the past couple of years, much talk has been made of bringing the character of Spawn back to the big screen. Todd McFarlane in particular has taken on the task of reviving his creation, and is currently attached as both a writer and director on the project.  In 2017, it was announced that he was working with Blumhouse Productions to produce a “low-budget” vision for the character on the big screen, but time will tell what exactly that will look like.

As mentioned previously, Spawn was anything but a critical success. The movie currently holds on IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 37% from audiences. Financially, it looks like the production took in an underwhelming profit, taking in $87 million in a lifetime international theatrical release on a $40 million production budget.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Spawn is the performance of John Leguizamo’s Clown. While the character and portrayal is unarguably obnoxious, there is something to be said for the fact that he is certainly memorable. As much as I didn’t find much entertainment value in the character, he lit up the screen more than anything else in the movie, and is more or less the only takeaway of the film I’ve held on to since my first viewing. On top of that, I have been led to understand that it is accurate to the source material. While that shouldn’t automatically be considered a positive, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the character is played the way he is. It is also worth noting that Leguizamo was clearly 100% dedicated to the part, and is nearly unrecognizable in the role. All in all, his performance is almost as impressive as it is inexplicable: why would someone put so much effort into a role so bad? In any case, he is the highlight of the movie by a longshot, and is enough to make it or break it, depending on the person watching.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, however, is Martin Sheen. While Leguizamo chews scenery throughout the film and consistently goes above and beyond the needs for the role, Sheen appears to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck with his performance. I’m sure this was a case of a distinguished actor on tough times dealing with material he felt was beneath him, but there is something markedly dispassionate about it all the same. That is particularly a shame, because I’d be willing to bet that there are a ton of character actors who would have eaten up the chance to be a crooked, evil politician in league with the legions of Hell. Alas, an underperforming Sheen is what the world received.

Beyond the performances, the element of the film that most stuck with me were the effects. Unfortunatly, it was for all the wrong reasons. To put it succinctly: the effects just look bad. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to blend practical work with digital work (in the vein of Jurassic Park), something clearly went wrong here. Whether it is Spawn’s cape, his motorcycle, or the transformation sequence for Clown, every major sequence that required digital work looks and feels flubbed. Perhaps this is partly a product of how much time has passed, but I feel like there are plenty of contemporaneous films with similar effects that look far better. In any case, they make the movie hard to look back on positively.

One of the problems with characters like Spawn is that they require a lot of backstory. Unlike a character like Captain America or Spider-Man, who inhabit a world more-or-less like our own, Spawn has a complicated mythos woven into his backstory that is inherent to his character. Establishing that kind of mythos for an audience via a screenplay can be a daunting task: a bit too much exposition, and audiences will feel bored; not enough, and they will feel lost.  In the case of Spawn, there was an attempt to cram as much information as possible into the opening narration, I’m sure in the hopes that it could be gotten out of the way for the rest of the film. However, that narration winds up feeling rushed, bloated, and overwhelming, to the point that the information doesn’t get digested by the audience. Hopefully, in a future attempt at adapting the story, the screenplay will reveal information a bit more organically, and use Spawn as the audience’s surrogate for revelations to unravel.

Overall, I think Spawn is hardly the worst movie ever produced, but it certainly belongs in a lower tier of superhero films. A combination of strategic production mistakes, some mediocre effects work, an unpolished screenplay, and a wide array of off-putting performances damned it in the public consciousness. While the movie has some defenders, I think its bad reputation is mostly deserved. I do think it is worth watching as a case study of method acting gone haywire with Leguizamo’s clown, though. That said, it isn’t enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t already have it secured in a place of nostalgia.

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Batman And Robin

Batman & Robin

Today, I’m going to dive into the infamously terrible 1997 superhero movie, Batman & Robin.

The plot of Batman & Robin is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Batman and Robin try to keep their relationship together even as they must stop Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy from freezing Gotham City.

Batman & Robin is, of course, based on the DC comics characters of Batman and Robin. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in March of 1939, created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Robin came along the following year, in Detective Comics #38, and is credited to the same duo. The two have appeared in numerous television shows, video games, movies, and other mediums over the years, and are almost certainly the most iconic superhero duo.

The writer for the screenplay of Batman & Robin was Akiva Goldsman, who also penned screenplays for Winter’s Tale, I Am Legend, I Robot, A Beautiful Mind, Lost In Space, and Batman Forever.

Batman & Robin was directed by Joel Schumacher, whose other credits include Phone Booth, The Number 23, 8MM, Batman Forever, Falling Down, Flatliners, and The Lost Boys, among others.

The cast for the film is headlined by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator, Last Action Hero, The Terminator, Commando, Hercules In New York), George Clooney (Michael Clayton, Solaris, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, Syriana, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Chris O’Donnell (Batman Forever, NCIS: Los Angeles, Scent of a Woman), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, The Producers, Gattaca), Alicia Silverstone (Clueless), Michael Gough (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever), and John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville, In The Mouth of Madness).

The cinematographer for Batman & Robin was Stephen Goldblatt, who shot The Help, The Hunger, Charlie Wilson’s War, Striptease, Batman Forever, The Pelican Brief, Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, and The Cotton Club, among others.

Batman & Robin had two credited editors: Dennis Virkler (Daredevil, Under Siege, Xanadu, Freejack, Collateral Damage, Independence Day, Only The Strong, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Hunt For Red October) and Mark Stevens (Phone Booth, The Number 23, Freddy vs. Jason, Batman Forever, The Final Destination).

The musical score for the film was composed by Elliot Goldenthal, who is known for providing music for movies like Heat, Public Enemies, Sphere, Alien 3, Batman Forever, Pet Sematary, Titus, Frida, and Across The Universe.

Among the team of effects workers for Batman & Robin was John Dykstra, a legendary, award-winning effects guru is is known for being an original founder of Industrial Light and Magic, coming up with the visuals used for the space battles and light sabers in Star Wars, and working on films like The Hateful Eight, Spider-Man, Lifeforce, and Django: Unchained.

Batman & Robin was the fourth and final installment in the initial Warner Brothers Batman film franchise, which began with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.

According to Joel Schumacher, previous Batman actor Val Kilmer left to do The Saint, so the role was recast to George Clooney. However, rumors have swirled that Val Kilmer was growing increasingly difficult to work with, such as was the case with The Island of Doctor Moreau, and wasn’t asked to return.

Joel Schumacher claims that the production of Batman & Robin was under immense pressure from the studio and producers to be “toyetic”: essentially, they were mandated to come up with devices that could be sold as merchandise and toys, because of how much money they add to the overhead profits.

Likewise, Schumacher says that they were under similar pressure to “make as kid-friendly a Batman as possible,” because parents complained that Burton’s Batman films were too scary for kids. So, they made it “lighter, brighter, [and] more family-friendly.” However, Schumacher claims that he wanted to do a darker film based on the comic story Batman: Year One, which he attempted to pitch after the failure of Batman & Robin. Likewise, Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller joined forces to try to make an iteration Batman: Year One as well, but were unsuccessful.

Robin’s costume and logo used in the movie were modeled after the character of Nightwing, which is a later alias of Dick Grayson in the comics after he retires the moniker of Robin.

Even before the film was released, plans were in motion for a sequel to Batman & Robin, to be titled Batman Unchained. However, the overwhelmingly negative reception to the film tanked the plans, and the Batman property sat dormant until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005.

The Smashing Pumpkins’s song  The End is The Beginning is The End was created specifically for the film, and ultimately won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Jeep Swenson, who portrayed Bane, unexpectedly died two months after the film’s release at the age of 40, due to heart failure. He was a known professional wrestler for WCW, who also appeared in the Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred.

Batman & Robin was made on a production budget of $125 million, on which it took in a lifetime box office total of $238.2 million between international and domestic markets.

Despite the profits, the movie was a huge critical failure, and is often cited as one of the worst movies ever made. It currently holds a 3.7/10 IMDb user rating, alongside scores of 11% from critics and 16% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes.

Batman & Robin is a rare case where a movie was a failure, in spite of succeeding in what it sought to do. Technically, Batman & Robin is a successful execution of a vision: a heavily-stylized, cartoony family movie. However, that successfully-executed vision was roundly rejected by audiences and critics. It wasn’t short on talent, or money, or anything else: the product just wasn’t what people wanted.

Personally, I kind of enjoy the movie. Yeah, the terrible cartoon sound effects and horrendous dialogue are painful to sit through, but I can definitely appreciate some over-the-top acting. Likewise, this is one of the most uniquely designed movies I can think of. It doesn’t really look like anything else, and it contributes a lot to the hyper-reality of the content of the story and the characters. The vision here was to create a live-action cartoon, and the designs go a long way towards making that possible. I also kind of appreciate the extremely vivid color palette, and would generally take that over the sepia-drenched Batman Begins any day.

Looking back now, in a word inflicted with Zack Snyder’s melodramatic DCEU, which avoids fun and vibrancy like the plague, you can sort of see the weird charm hidden inside of Batman & Robin. Likewise, the humor, style, and even dialogue on display here are far superior to that displayed in Suicide Squad, which is strung together with string and bubble gum. Say what you will about the product, but Batman & Robin is a complete movie: an executed vision with a coherent story behind. It may be a soulless capitalistic endeavor seeking to leech off of children, but it is at least a structured narrative. It may also be a goofy, anachronistic cartoon that is edited like a panic attack, but it has some tangible vitality to it.

People know what this movie is by now. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard about it, or seen clips. You know what you are getting into if you are sitting down with it. Personally, I go back to this movie more often than most of the Batman flicks. It is genuinely, entertainingly terrible, but is also more visually interesting than a lot of similar bad movies. Not only that, but Joel Schumacher’s commentary track, which is available on some DVD releases of the movie, is both insightful and hilarious, and adds a lot to a rewatch. For bad movie fans, this is mandatory viewing. For casual movie fans or folks looking for a laugh, this is a good option to take out. For all of the screenplay’s issues, pacing is not one, and that is the most painful aspect of most bad movies.

Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider

Today, I’m going to dive into the 2007 Nicolas Cage superhero movie, Ghost Rider.

The plot of Ghost Rider is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze gives up his soul to become a hellblazing vigilante, to fight against power hungry Blackheart, the son of the devil himself.

The modern incarnation of Ghost Rider first appeared in Marvel Spotlight #5 in August of 1972, created by Mike Ploog, Gary Friedrich, and Roy Thomas. The following year, the character received a standalone title, and has been a staple of the Marvel universe ever since.

Ghost Rider was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who both wrote and directed the even less well-regarded Marvel film, Daredevil. He additionally wrote the screenplays for both of the comedies Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.

The cast for Ghost Rider includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, Left Behind, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out The Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation.), Peter Fonda (Easy Rider, The Trip, Boondock Saints II, Wild Hogs), Sam Elliott (Road House, Hulk, Tombstone, The Big Lebowski), Eva Mendes (The Spirit, The Other Guys, 2 Fast 2 Furious), Wes Bentley (Interstellar, Jonah Hex, American Beauty), and Donal Logue (Blade, Zodiac, Terriers, The Patriot).

The cinematographer for the movie was Russell Boyd, whose list of shooting credits includes Liar Liar, White Men Can’t Jump, Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, Crocodile Dundee 2, and Doctor Dolittle.

The editor on Ghost Rider was Richard Francis-Bruce, who also cut such films as The Green Mile, The Rock, Se7en, Sliver, The Shawshank Redemption, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Air Force One.

The musical score for the film was provided by Christopher Young, whose other credits include The Core, Spider-Man 3, Swordfish, Drag Me To Hell, Rounders, Species, Copycat, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 2.

The financial success of Ghost Rider led to a sequel in 2011: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which once again starred Nicolas Cage in the lead role. However, in May of 2013, the film rights to the character reverted back to Marvel Studios, which effectively ended the franchise as it existed. There are no current plans for Marvel to bring the character back to the big screen, though an iteration has appeared on the television show Agents of SHIELD.

Nicolas Cage is apparently a huge fan of the Ghost Rider character, and actively lobbied for the part when he heard that it was casting. He even had to cover up a prominent Ghost Rider tattoo on his back in order to play the character.

Interestingly, Ghost Rider was the first time Cage played a comic book character, despite being an outspoken fan and collector of comic books (his stage name of Cage is taken from Marvel character Luke Cage). Famously, he almost played Superman in an ill-fated Tim Burton attempt to bring the character to the screen, which was recently chronicled in The Death of Superman Lives.

Sam Eliott’s character in the film, The Caretaker, is based on the original incarnation of Ghost Rider, which is now referred to as The Phantom Rider. This character was more of a western hero: he distinctively rode a white horse, and wore a glowing, phosphorescent mask and uniform.

The pre-production for Ghost Rider surprisingly dates back to the mid-1990s. However, numerous delays and personnel changes kept the film from being completed for roughly a decade. An early screenplay treatment for the flick was apparently cooked up by David S. Goyer, who is known for films like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, and Blade, and wound up getting credited for writing the film’s 2011 sequel. In front of the camera, Eric Bana and Johnny Depp both nearly wound up filling the role of Ghost Rider over the years, and Jon Voight was attached at one point in a supporting role.

Nicolas Cage received a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor for his role in Ghost Rider, which he ultimately lost out on to Eddie Murphy’s performance in Norbit.

In a strange move, part of the promotion of the film involved the character of Ghost Rider appearing in a Jackson Hewitt commercial, in which a representative helps him fill out his taxes.

The newfound attention brought to the character by the film’s production led to a significant dispute over the ownership of the character. One of the original creators, Gary Friedrich, claimed that the rights to the character reverted to him in 2001, which led to a lawsuit and a long-running legal battle with Marvel and the studios involved in the film, which didn’t formally resolve until September of 2013.

Ghost Rider was made on a production budget of $110 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of roughly $228.7 million between domestic and international markets. While this made it a financial success, it didn’t do nearly as well critically. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 26% from critics and 48% from audiences.

There is no way to talk about Ghost Rider without first addressing the national treasure that is Nicolas Cage. It is hard to deny that Cage is consistently a barrel of fun with his over-the-top performances, but he took a lot of criticism for this role in particular. Not only did he take a lot of flak for being too old for the character, but much was made of a scene where he appears to have CGI abdominal muscles. While that sequence is definitely a bit suspicious, my biggest issue with Cage in this movie is that he isn’t quite unchained enough for what I wanted. Outside of his initial transformation, Cage is really subdued in his performance for a man with his head on fire. He is still erratic and fun to watch, but not quite to the degree that I would have hoped for.

Even if you believe that the casting of Nicolas Cage was a bit off-base, it is hard to argue that the casting of Sam Elliott as his predecessor wasn’t pitch perfect.  For the role of a lone-retired vengeful ghost cowboy, Sam Elliott couldn’t have been a more apt choice to play the part. In fact, one of the biggest weaknesses of the film is how little screen time his character gets. In most films like this, his role would have been as a trainer and guide for the protagonist. Instead, he is more of an informant than anything else, and doesn’t do much direct teaching. It is unfortunate, because it would have been cool to watch their relationship develop in spite of their clashing personalities, but that was not to be.

Perhaps the biggest criticism widely leveled at Ghost Rider is its extensive use of CGI, which was less that stellar at the time, and has aged very poorly. Unfortunately, I think the nature of the characters that the story was dealing with didn’t allow practical effects to be much of an option. However, the CGI didn’t have to be quite so ubiquitous: the fact that it is seemingly present in every scene makes the movie as a whole look cheaper and more artificial. CGI is best used as a background tool, but it has a more prominent place in this movie than most of the performers.

One of my personal gripes about this film is its unimaginative and paint-by-numbers screenplay. Nearly everything that happens is predictable, in a way that is even more flagrant than your average blockbuster screenplay. Not only that, but some of the dialogue borders on sounding like genre self-parody, like the mugger saying “give me your damn purse, lady!”.

Overall, Ghost Rider is a fun enough little blockbuster that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time, but it is certainly not good by any means. The character design and his bike are both fun to see on screen, but the effects spoil a lot of the coolness factor there. I still think it is worth catching for Cage and Elliott, but the film as a whole isn’t much to write home about.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think Ghost Rider is worth sitting through if you see it pop up on cable, or you just need some background noise to occupy your time. Apart from that, this isn’t something that should specifically seek out, unless you are a die-hard Nic Cage completionist.

Man-Thing

Man-Thing

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Today, I’m going to dive into an obscure, straight-to-video Marvel movie: 2005’s Man-Thing.

The plot of Man-Thing is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Agents of an oil tycoon vanish while exploring a swamp marked for drilling. The local sheriff investigates and faces a Seminole legend come to life: Man-Thing, a shambling swamp-monster whose touch burns those who feel fear.

The screenplay for Man-Thing was written by Hans Rodionoff, who also penned the films The Skulls II, Lost Boys: The Tribe, Lost Boys: The Thirst, and National Lampoon’s Bagboy.

The eponymous character of Man-Thing is credited to Steve Gerber, a veteran comic book writer who might be best known for creating the somewhat infamous character of Howard The Duck. He wrote a lauded 39-issue series that brought Man-Thing to wider prominence and fleshed out the story, but he interestingly did not create the character. The first appearance of the swampy creature was in Savage Tales #1 in May of 1971, and was initially conceived of by four notable comics figures: Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Gray Morrow.

This film adaptation of Man-Thing was directed by Brett Leonard, who is best known for movies like The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity.

The cast of Man-Thing includes Matthew Le Nevez (Feed, Offspring), Rachael Taylor (Transformers, Jessica Jones), Jack Thompson (Australia, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil), Steve Bastoni (The Matrix Reloaded, The Water Diviner), and Conan Stevens (Game of Thrones, Son of God).

manthing2The cinematographer for Man-Thing was Steve Arnold, who also shot the films Feed, Highlander: The Source, and Last Cab To Darwin, along with a handful of shorts, documentaries, and television series.

Man-Thing was cut by editor Martin Connor, whose other credits include The Hard Word, The Railway Man, and Burning Man, along with a good number of Australian television series.

The production of Man-Thing had two lead designers: Tim Ferrier, who is best known for doing the design work for the cult favorite science-fiction television FarScape, and Peter Pound, a storyboard and concept artist who has worked on films like Ghost Rider, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dark City, and The Crow.

The initial plan was apparently to have Man-Thing film in New Orleans, essentially on-location for the Louisiana setting of the story. However, budget limitations led to a change of plans, and Australia ultimately served for the backdrop for the production.

manthing4While Man-Thing didn’t reach a very wide audience with its television debut and subsequent DVD release, those that did see it didn’t much care for what they saw. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 4.1/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 17% from critics and 12% from audiences.

The first thing that I noticed about Man-Thing is that the color grading is absolutely out of control. Most of the sequences are absolutely drowned in green tones, to the point that the whole movie looks like an overdone CSI episode. During the handful of daylight sequences, yellows take over with very much the same effect. However, no matter what, every sequence is unreasonably over-saturated with one color or another, which makes the movie look and feel cheaper than it needs to.

Man-Thing features a handful of unique scene transitions in the form of rapid montages of gore, pollution, and swamp imagery juxtaposed together. While I thought this was pretty interesting the first time it happened, it gets far too overused over the course of the film, to the point that it loses its potency. The same could be said for the whole movie, to be honest: there is a lot of rapid cutting whenever the action picks up, which gets really tiring after a while. When the same gimmick happens over and over again, it becomes predictable and uniform, as opposed to novel.

One of the most common complaints that I have read about Man-Thing is that it is not loyal to the source material of the comics, wherein Man-Thing is more of a heroic avenger than a murderous terror. While I am sure this was frustrating for die-hard fans, I can totally understand why the production went in the direction of a horror movie: honestly, it just makes more sense for the setting and concept, particularly for a one-off story. If this were going to be a television pilot or a franchise-builder, having Man-Thing as a protagonist would have made sense. However, I think that is a lot to ask for in a single movie. Unlike Swamp Thing, Man-Thing is not very humanoid in design, and it would be really hard to get an audience to back him.

One of the most impressive aspects of Man-Thing is surprisingly its use of gore, which I really didn’t expect. A number of key scenes in the movie take place either during autopsies or at crime scenes, where the bodies play an important role in building up the anticipation and fear of the monster’s full reveal. The fact that these corpses are done well adds a lot of power to the movie if you ask me. Honestly, most of the effects look good, which is more than a little unusual for a modern b-movie. This was likely due to the dark lighting concealing CGI issues, but if it works, it works. The portrayal of Man Thing himself is also notably cool and intimidating, and gives a distinct sense of size that does a lot for making the character imposing when fully realized on screen.

As far as the performances go, I think that all of the players are perfectly serviceable for a b-movie, particularly considering that almost the entire cast was filled in regionally on location. Even the comic relief characters, which can easily wreck the tone of a horror movie when done poorly, work like a charm.

As with seemingly every b-movie of the past 30-odd years, there is a sequence in Man-Thing with completely unnecessary nudity and sexual content that adds nothing to the story or characters. However, unlike most b-movies, it only happens once, and stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the film. While I haven’t read anything to attest to this, I have a suspicion that this brief sequence towards the beginning of the film may have been added in at some point, probably to help in selling the film to a distributor. I do know that the movie struggled for distribution before SyFy took it on, and this seems like just the sort of move that would be made to try and lure a sleazy distributor off of the fence.

It is worth noting that I have watched a ton of SyFy originals and straight-to-DVD features over the years, and typically, they are the absolute bottom of the barrel in quality. Man-Thing, when you stack it up against these cohorts, stands out from the bunch. Compare this film to any given Lake Placid sequel, or any of the litany of Mega Shark or Sharknado features, and you would come out with a much greater appreciation for it than if you compared it to Marvel Studios outings. I think that people often see this film, and compare it unfairly to movies far outside of its league.

Overall, I think that Man-Thing is a half-decent b-level flick, though definitely flawed. It clearly turned off fans due to the significant deviations taken from the source material, but as someone who isn’t familiar with the comics: this is totally ok. In a lot of ways, it feels like a modernized swamp monster movie, more so than most of the remakes and homages I’ve seen over the years.

As far as a recommendation goes, I would say to give it a shot. There are way worse entries in the early days of Marvel movies, and if you can handle any SyFy Original, you can certainly deal with the negative aspects of Man-Thing. If you go in with no expectations, and leave any prior comic book knowledge of the character at the door, you might just have a half-decent time with this flick.

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Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing

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Today, I’m going to be taking a look at Wes Craven’s comic book film adaptation: Swamp Thing.

The plot of Swamp Thing is summarized on IMDb as follows:

After a violent incident with a special chemical, a research scientist is turned into a swamp plant monster.

Swamp Thing was written and directed by acclaimed horror master Wes Craven.  Craven is without a doubt one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time, having been behind such films and franchises as Last House On The Left, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Hills Have Eyes. That said, Swamp Thing marked his first and only foray into the science fiction genre.

Swamp Thing is based on the comic series and character of the same name created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. The character first appeared in House of Secrets #92 in July of 1971, which was intended as a standalone story. However, the character’s popularity led to an initial 24 issue solo series that ran throughout the mid-1970s. Since then, Swamp Thing has been a mainstay of DC comics.

swampthing4The cast for Swamp Thing was primarily made up of Louis Jourdan (Octopussy, The Return of the Swamp Thing), Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Creepshow, Batman: The Animated Series), Ray Wise (Dallas, RoboCop, Twin Peaks), and David Hess (The Last House on the Left, Zombie Nation).

The cinematographer for the film was Robbie Greenberg, who also shot the films Free Willy, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and Wild Hogs. The editor for Swamp Thing was Richard Bracken, whose credits include The Hills Have Eyes Part II, numerous episodes of the television shows Ironside and Columbo, and work on six different Power Rangers series.

The musical score for Swamp Thing was provided by Harry Manfredini, who is best known for his work on the Friday the 13th franchise. However, he has plenty of other films to his credit, including A Talking Cat!?!, The Omega Code, DeepStar Six, and House.

swampthing3Two of the producers for Swamp Thing were Michael Uslan (The Dark Knight, Batman, The Spirit, The Lego Movie) and Benjiman Melniker (Mitchell, Constantine, National Treasure, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

The makeup effects team for the film included Tonga Knight (Cosmos), Steve LaPorte (Van Helsing, Deep Blue Sea, Caddyshack II, The Howling), Ken Horn (Battle Beyond The Stars, The Hills Have Eyes), David Miller (Batman & Robin, The Mangler), and William Munns (Return of the Living Dead, The Beastmaster).

Swamp Thing was filmed primarily on Johns Island, which is located near Charleston, South Carolina. The island measures 84 square miles, and its marsh-y environment made it a perfect backdrop for the story.

Interestingly, Swamp Thing received a sequel many years later in 1989: The Return of Swamp Thing, which featured a handful of returning cast and crew members. However, it wasn’t received terribly well, and currently holds an IMDb user rating of 4.5/10.

The production budget for Swamp Thing was estimated to be $3 million. While I wasn’t able to dig up any box office numbers for the film, I suspect it made a profit due to its low price tag, and the fact that it received a sequel.

Swamp Thing wasn’t exactly embraced by audiences and critics. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.4/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 64% from critics and 34% from audiences, all of which are less than stellar marks.

One critic who was a fan of the movie was Roger Ebert, who gave Swamp Thing a solid 4/5 stars, citing that it is “one of those movies that fall somewhere between buried treasures and guilty pleasures.”

Swamp Thing is as much a throwback to earlier monster flicks as it is a comic book movie. There are definitely plenty of moments that conjure memories of flicks like Creature From The Black Lagoon, as you might expect. The fact that the movie is very low budget and small scale really helps keep it grounded, which makes it feel all the more nostalgia-inducing. On top of that, there is no lighting trickery to be found here: the eponymous Swamp Thing is always in full light and in the open, much like the rubber suit monsters of olden days.

This is where things get complicated, though. The Swamp Thing suit straight-up looks terrible. However, maybe that is part of the homage, and the greater vision for the film? It is hard to say. Even Roger Ebert, who was a fan of the movie, referred to the creature as looking like “a bug-eyed spinach souffle.” Personally, I don’t think he is even as interesting as that: I think he just looks like a big, wrinkly dude caked in mud. Similarly, there are some hilariously terrible scene transitions (stylistic wipes, particularly) that stand out a whole lot over the course of the movie. While they definitely look like shit, maybe they were supposed to look like shit? It is an interesting boundary to consider, as many movies straddle the delicate line between faithful homage and honest craftsmanship.

As you can gather from the name of the creature, the setting is pretty important for Swamp Thing. And, honestly, I think that they absolutely nailed that aspect of the production. It is hard not to like the South Carolina lowlands in this movie: it has the exact sort of look that you would want and expect for a movie about a swamp monster. I have no idea how or why they decided on this obscure location, but it is fantastic.

swampthing2Something that I have seen written quite a bit is that this movie is supposed to be a comedy. Personally, outside of a few lines, I didn’t see comedy in this at all: it is a pretty straight sort of monster movie, with the modification of the monster being the good guy. I think it is pretty earnest about what it is: I suspect Craven was a big fan of the classic monster flicks, and wanted to do a little throwback.

Overall, Swamp Thing can be summed up as unremarkable. I’ve seen this movie a few times now, and every time, I have forgotten pretty significant details as soon as I finished watching it. I know that the movie has its proponents, but I’ve always found it a bit boring. It might be a tad too faithful to those old monster flicks for its own good.

For Wes Craven completists, fans of the source material, or just fans of comic book movies in general, it is worth giving Swamp Thing a shot. It is not so bad that it needs to be actively avoided, but I wouldn’t advise that anyone go out of their way to watch it.

The Spirit

The Spirit

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Today, I’m going to be taking a look at 2008’s super hero bomb, The Spirit.

The Spirit was directed and written by Frank Miller, who is primarily known for his comic book work on characters like Daredevil and Batman. His work in the movies, while less notable, is not insignificant: he penned the screenplays for RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3, and co-directed both Sin City movies.

The source material for the film was a comic strip of the same name that was developed by Will Eisner, and ran primarily during the 1940s and 1950s.

The cast of The Spirit includes Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, The Hateful Eight, Jackie Brown), Gabriel Macht (Suits), Eva Mendes (Ghost Rider, The Other Guys), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin, The Avengers, The Prestige, Lost In Translation), Sarah Paulson (Carol, American Horror Story), Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years), and Jaime King (Silent Night, Sin City, My Bloody Valentine).

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The cinematographer for the film was Bill Pope, whose other credits include Spider-Man 3, Army of Darkness, Darkman, The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The World’s End, and Spider-Man 2, as well as the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

The musical score for The Spirit was provided by David Newman, who has also provided music for films like Serenity, Ice Age, Death To Smoochy, Galaxy Quest, The Phantom, The Mighty Ducks, Heathers, and Critters, among many others.

The Spirit was made on a production budget of $60 million, on which it grossed just over $39 million over its theatrical lifetime, making it a significant loss. Critically, it didn’t fare any better: it currently holds a 4.8/10 IMDb user score, along with abysmal Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 14% from critics and 25% from audiences.

One of the biggest issues with the movie is its wildly uneven tone. For the life of me, I can’t understand why there was so much slapstick written into the screenplay. The style of the movie is stylized to look deadpan and dark, which is appropriate for dark and gritty stories. However, there’s constantly shitty humor being thrown around in the dialogue, which causes a huge disconnect with all of the messaging around it. A movie that looks like this should just never include the line “toilets are always funny.”

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In another time, a movie with kind of odd sense of humor might have worked out. However, for contemporary audiences, I think it was just a bit too cartoon-y and out of touch. This wasn’t helped the sub-par comedic writing: maybe if the dialogue had actually been clever or funny, the movie would have resonated better with people, not unlike many of the Marvel movies have done. However, having Samuel L. Jackson parade around in racially and politically insensitive costumes isn’t exactly funny as much as it is uncomfortably weird and tone-deaf.

That being said, one of the few bearable things about The Spirit is the dastardly duo of Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson, who are the only performers that seem to have a pulse in the movie. They are also the only ones who seem capable of delivering Miller’s god-awful dialogue, which seems to trip up everyone else. I do think that Dan Lauria was good casting for his small role, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the movie apart from grumble.

When it comes down to it, The Spirit is an exercise in style over substance on every level. Miller clearly has an eye for individual images that work well in storyboarding and inside of comic frames, but the translation doesn’t always work on screen. The sort of comic stylizing used in the film can certainly work to solid effect, like in Sin City, but there is a delicate balance necessary for it to look just right. The Spirit just doesn’t find it, and I think that is specifically because Miller didn’t have a co-director to lean on, and offer a more cinematic eye to his work.

Overall, The Spirit is a painfully boring movie, despite having a pretty impressive design and look to it. Everything beneath that surface level, however, is at best sub-par. Re-watching the movie was even worse than I had remembered it: sequences drag on for far too long, and there are way too many tone-killing silly quips peppered in. On top of that, the stakes seem completely nonexistent: there’s never any believable challenge for the hero, as the villains are always too busy playing dress up to pose a real threat. I’d like to say that this is worth watching for some sort of unintentional entertainment value, but even Samuel L. Jackson at his peak hammy-ness isn’t enough to make this movie worth sitting through.

Worst of 2016: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad

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Today, as part of my series on the worst movies of 2016, I’m taking a look at one of the year’s most polarizing blockbusters: Suicide Squad.

The plot of Suicide Squad is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A secret government agency recruits some of the most dangerous incarcerated super-villains to form a defensive task force. Their first mission: save the world from the apocalypse.

Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer, whose other credits include Fury, Sabotage, End of Watch, SWAT, Training Day, and The Fast and The Furious.

The Suicide Squad team debuted in DC comics in The Brave and The Bold #25 in 1959, though only the name truly remains of the initial incarnation now. Most of the elements now popularly recognized come from the modern version of the series that started with a revamp in the 1980s by John Ostrander, John Byrne, and Len Wein. The concept sees super-villains compiled together into a strike team to carry out tasks for the government, in exchange for their freedoms. The team has sporadically featured such notable DC villains as Poison Ivy, Captain Cold, The Penguin, and Black Adam, on top of more consistent core members like Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Harley Quinn, and has a regularly rotating cast of members.

suicidesquad1The cast of Suicide Squad is made up of Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), Will Smith (Wild Wild West, Men In Black, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Winter’s Tale, After Earth), Viola Davis (Fences, State of Play), Jared Leto (Fight Club, Mr. Nobody, Requiem For A Dream, Alexander), and Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher, I, Frankenstein, Terminator Genisys).

The cinematographer for the film was Ramon Vasyenov, who shot the movies Fury, End of Watch, Charlie Countryman, and The East. The editor for Suicide Squad was John Gilroy, who has cut a handful of notable movies, including Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, Warrior, Michael Clayton, Suspect Zero, and Billy Madison.

suicidesquad2The musical score for the film was provided by Steven Price, who also worked on Fury, The World’s End, Gravity, and Attack the Block, among other projects.

A number of scenes of Killer Croc’s backstory were removed from the final theatrical cut, including depictions of his upbringing as a social outcast due to his physical appearance. Likewise, it was revealed that Croc crossed paths with Batman while working for numerous Gotham crime bosses. There were also scenes displaying his affinity for making sculptures out of discarded materials, and a sequence where he becomes sick at the helicopter escort to Midway City, prompting him to throw up half-digested pieces of goat.

Thanks to the financial success of Suicide Squad, there is a rumored follow-up in the pipeline to be called Gotham City Sirens, which is likely to focus on Harley Quinn, along with a handful of other Gotham City figures.

suicidesquad3The initial trailer for Suicide Squad was set to the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody, and wound up building a significant amount of positive buzz for the film. Thanks to it going viral, it has racked up over 78 million views on YouTube since its release.

It is popularly believed that the mixed-to-negative reactions to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, combined with the overwhelmingly positive reception to Deadpool, led to a handful of re-shoots and re-cuts to Suicide Squad at the last minute in order to lighten its tone and inject humor.

A number of alternate casting rumors surrounded the development of Suicide Squad. Apparently, Tom Hardy dropped out of the role of Rick Flag in order to do The Revenant, and Ryan Gosling flat-out turned down the role of Joker due to the contract terms mandated by the studio.

suicidesquad6Apparently, Jared Leto’s method acting for the role of Joker led to some less-than-savory antics on set. Reports indicated that he sent unwanted gifts to his fellow cast members, including packages containing used condoms, live rats, and bullets.

Financially, Suicide Squad was a significant hit: it grossed roughly $745 million worldwide on a production budget of $175 million. Critically, however, it proved to be one of the most polarizing films of the year. While it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.4/10, it also has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 26% from critics, and made many critics’ lists of the worst films of 2016.

suicidesquad5It is worth noting that the version of Suicide Squad that I watched was the theatrical cut. For home video release, the advertising touted an improved “extended cut”, but I wanted to see exactly what audiences saw in the theaters, and what the producers and the studio thought was fit for the widest release.

suicidesquad7One of the most common complaints I have seen about Suicide Squad is that the first half plays more like an extended music video than a movie. When I first heard that criticism, I assumed that it was embellishment. I was genuinely surprised at how apt that observation is: the first half hour of the movie is a strung-together sequence of pop songs that gave me flash backs to Sucker Punch.

Once the story does start moving, it is plagued by pacing issues. Some characters get overly-detailed introductions that drag the progression to a halt, while others seem to appear out of nowhere. The relationships between characters are vague, and some have little-to-no dialogue to develop themselves. Most of the enemies the team fight are literally faceless and essentially powerless, removing any kinds of stakes or threats from the table. Worse yet, the central mission at the heart of the story isn’t adequately revealed to the audience, making it unclear what story progress would even look like if it happened. The combination of all of these elements is a poorly built story framework that relies on undeveloped characters to carry it along, with no intrigue or tension to be found.

All of that said, there are some good things to say about Suicide Squad. While some of the CGI is definitely rough, there was clearly a lot of time and effort put into Killer Croc’s design and execution, and the result is arguably pretty cool. Unfortunately, he is also one of the characters with the least amount of screen time and development, which may have been due to the cost and labor involved with the makeup. Still, the character felt like a massive squandering of potential.

As far as other positives go, the Batman and Flash cameos were almost certainly the best parts of the film. I assume these were mostly included to make audiences excited for future interactions and films with these characters, and I have to say, I think the tactic worked. Even moreso than after Batman v Superman, I want to see Battfleck in his own feature, getting up to Batman shenanigans. Unfortunately, these cameo sequences are very brief, and front-loaded in the movie, so they don’t add much value to the film as a whole.

Overall, Suicide Squad is mostly a trainwreck. The writing, action, and editing all left a lot to be desired. The performances were hard to judge, because the cast clearly didn’t have anything here to work with. All of that said, from the perspective of pure spectacle, there is some value here. There is noise and color, and if that is what you want from a blockbuster, this is where you can find it. For anyone outside of that description who is not a die-hard DC fan, there is just no way I could recommend this film.