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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.

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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.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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With the release of Suicide Squad this past weekend, I figured it was about time to take a look at DC’s previous critical bomb. And so, today’s feature is the much-hyped and highly divisive DC cinematic grudge match, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Dawn of Justice was written by Chris Terrio, most notably of Argo, and David S. Goyer, whose previous credits include Dark City, Batman Begins, Blade II, Demonic Toys, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, among others.

The movie was directed by the ever-divisive Zack Snyder, whose previous films include 300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Sucker Punch. Snyder has already been attached to direct the Dawn of Justice follow-ups, Justice League and Justice League Part Two, and is a listed producer on all upcoming DC cinematic universe features.

The cinematographer for Batman v Superman was Larry Fong, who shot such films as 300, Sucker Punch, and Watchmen, and is working on the upcoming Kong: Skull Island. Before he made the permanent jump to blockbuster films, he worked extensively on the TV show Lost.

The editor for the film was David Brenner, who previously cut flicks like 2012, Wanted, The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, Independence Day, The Doors, and World Trade Center.

Dawn of Justice boasts a large cast list that includes Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Lawrence Fishburne, among others.

The plot of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Fearing that the actions of Superman are left unchecked, Batman takes on the Man of Steel, while the world wrestles with what kind of a hero it really needs.

Long before Dawn of Justice hit theaters, it managed to get on the wrong side of many fans of DC comics with the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Many couldn’t separate him from his unsuccessful string of action features, which included a stint as the Marvel superhero Daredevil, prior to his critical rebirth with his acclaimed directing career. Surprisingly, most fans now cite Affleck’s depiction of Batman (“Batfleck”) as one of the few highlights of Dawn of Justice.

batmansuperman3While Dawn of Justice is not the first film installment in the DC Cinematic Universe, as it follows the continuity of Man of Steel, it is undoubtedly the key launching point for DC’s imminent future on screen. It introduces not only Batman, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg as potential subjects for connected stories down the line.

Both the plot and aesthetics of Dawn of Justice borrow heavily from two key source materials: “The Death of Superman” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” However, the result manages to defy being faithful to either comic story, and likely wouldn’t please die hard fans of one or the other.

In July of 2016, an expanded cut of Batman v Superman was released on DVD and Blu-ray, which included 30 minutes of cut footage. This director’s cut has been marketed as an Ultimate Edition, and was meant to counter some popular criticisms of the theatrical cut.

The idea of a Batman and Superman team up has a long history, both inside and outside of the pages of DC comics. Series such as World’s Finest have seen the two iconic characters team up with fellow allies and get up to all manner of shenanigans, including occasionally traveling in time. Likewise, the characters have crossed paths many times in animation, such as the Super Friends ad Justice League series.

batmansuperman1Batman v Superman was greeted with a notably mixed reception, particularly online. The Rotten Tomatoes scores currently sit at 27% from critics and 65% from audiences, which is a significant gulf, and has been cause for claims of bias and conspiracy on the parts of some. The IMDb score is no less contentious: it currently sits at a 6.9/10, but that is only after alleged vote brigades inflated the score for weeks after the film’s initial release.

Batman v Superman is a movie that certainly has a fair share of flaws, but I think its biggest failing is the lack of character building in the screenplay. The movie so heavily relies on the audience’s recognition of the characters on screen, that it doesn’t bother building them beyond that. I have never had so much trouble feeling invested in characters in a superhero movie, and I’m including movies like Howard The Duck and Daredevil in there.

On top of the character issues, there is a strange lack of connection between sequences throughout the movie, to the point that long stretches just feel like bloated montages. It is hard to relate to anyone in the story as a result, because you don’t really spend quality time with any of them. Instead of the characters feeling like close friends of the audience via shared experience, they just come off as adjacent acquaintances. There is just no emotional bond built between the characters and the observers.

However, there are a few notable bright spots to the movie. Batman, on all fronts, is actually pretty solid. Jeremy Irons is a spectacular Alfred, and his dialogue with Affleck was the most real and relatable thing in the movie. Personally, I also thought the aesthetics of the Batman suit and paraphernalia were a welcome departure from all of the character’s previous film appearances. The armor and voice modulator were a nice touch, as hokey as they might seem to some, and Affleck absolutely nailed an aged and burnt-out Bruce Wayne. Honestly, I think that Batfleck would have been a better fit for a story like The Dark Knight Rises, in which his methods are either publicly frowned upon or no longer needed, but he is cornered into a return to form.

Likewise, Wonder Woman was definitely cool to see, and looked cool in action on screen. Gal Gadot has gotten a little bit of unmerited criticism for her accent, but I thought it fit the character pretty well, and it wasn’t exactly distracting. However, Wonder Woman’s presence also made the move feel even more bloated than it already was. She (and the rest of the Justice League) felt a little too forced and transparent as mechanisms to build branching paths for a sprawling film franchise. That might have been fine if they were worked in as minor references or as concluding teasers, but they are given a little too much focus, to the detriment of the story and film as a whole. The result is both a muddy story and a poor introduction to some key franchise characters. The Justice League either needed way more attention and a role in the plot, or way less time on screen.

Almost certainly the most mocked aspect of Dawn of Justice is the cause of the two central heroes’ ultimate alliance: the revelation that they both have moms named Martha. I can understand that this was an attempt to emotionally tie the two characters together, and give them common ground to come to terms on. Unfortunately, not only isn’t this commonality built up very well, but it is just too simplistic, and comes off as borderline comedic as a result. It is just too minor of a coincidence to justify burying the hatchet on a pretty serious grudge.

Overall, Batman v Superman isn’t unwatchable by any means, but it is definitely sup-par. Snyder does have a gift for crafting images, but he’s never really gotten a handle on story or characters, which are necessary to give those images genuine gravity. For fans of Snyder’s other works, this is probably a perfectly acceptable flick. Likewise, die-hard Superman and Batman fans may just be pleased to see their idols on screen again. However, in my opinion, this is not just sub-par, but disappointingly forgettable. What of this movie, in 10 years, will be remembered? Martha? Batfleck? The box office number? Almost nothing about the story or the emotion that should have defined this movie will last. As with many Snyder films, this is an exercise in spectacle that is ultimately all flash and no substance.