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Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla (1998)

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Today’s film is the ill-conceived and ill-executed American re-imagining of a Japanese cinematic ground-breaker: 1998’s Godzilla.

The plot of Godzilla is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A giant, reptilian monster surfaces, leaving destruction in its wake. To stop the monster (and its babies), an earthworm scientist, his reporter ex-girlfriend, and other unlikely heroes team up to save their city.

Godzilla had four credited writers: the screenplay is credited to director Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day), and story credits were given to Ted Elliott (Small Soldiers, The Lone Ranger) and Terry Rossio (Legend of Zorro, Deja Vu).

As mentioned, the film was directed by Roland Emmerich, who has made a name for himself by repeatedly destroying prominent metropolises in films like 2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down, and Independence Day: Resurgence.

The cast of Godzilla is led by Matthew Broderick (The Producers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Jean Reno (Leon, The Professional), Maria Pitillo (Chaplin), and Hank Azaria (Mystery Men).

The cinematographer for the film was Ueli Steiger, who also shot 10,000 BC, Bowfinger, House Arrest, The Black Knight, Stealing Harvard, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Two editors received credit for working on Godzilla: Peter Amundson, who has worked on films like Pacific Rim, Gamer, Shoot Em Up, Hellboy, Blade II, and DragonHeart, and David Siegel, who cut Eight Legged Freaks.

The musical score for Godzilla was composed by two people: David Arnold, who has provided music for the BBC series Sherlock and Jekyll & Hyde, as well as films like The Stepford Wives and Hot Fuzz, and Michael Lloyd, who composed scores for Ghoulies Go To College and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.

Godzilla wound up spawning an animated series that continued with the plot laid out by the film. The series ran for two seasons on Fox Kids, and was actually somewhat better acclaimed than the film itself.

A potential sequel was already in the works when Godzilla was released into theaters: it was to take place in Australia, and feature some sort of large insect (perhaps inspired by Mothra) as an adversary. However, the critical and fan reactions quickly put an end to these plans.

Godzilla wound up nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards, which are given out each year to films deemed to be the worst in any given category. It wound up winning two: Worst Remake or Sequel, and Worst Supporting Actress for Maria Pitillo.

The 1998 American design of Godzilla was parodied years later in Godzilla: Final Wars, which has created some confusion on how the American Godzilla is classified. It is officially part of the Japanese Godzilla mythos because of its inclusion in that film, but it isn’t always considered a proper Godzilla, often being classified as “Zilla” instead. Likewise, most fans of the series discount the inferior American rendition, often referring to it as G.I.N.O. (Godzilla In Name Only).

The promotional materials for Godzilla bore the tagline “Size Does Matter,” which was intended to be a slight towards Jurassic Park. The tagline was (and still is) frequently mocked in parodies and other film trailers.

A number of notable directors, including James Cameron, Tim Burton, and Paul Verhoeven, all ultimately passed on the project of re-imagining Godzilla. Then, a version got well into the conceptual phase with Stan Winston providing creature designs and effects and Jan De Bont directing, though it eventually fell apart just before Emmerich took the reigns.

godzilla2Another American take on Godzilla released in 2014, directed by Gareth Edwards. While better received than the 1998 incarnation, audiences were still divided on it. However, a combined franchise is being build around that film, which will be continued with the upcoming Kong: Skull Island.

The year after the release of Godzilla, Godzilla 2000 hit theaters in Japan. The plan had initially been to hold off on releasing a Japanese Godzilla feature until the 50th anniversary in 2004, which allowed plenty of time for American sequels to be produced. The scrapped sequel plans, in conjunction with fan outrage, pushed up the production of Godzilla 2000, which was seen as a direct response to the lackluster American outing.

Godzilla was made on a production budget of $130 million, on which it took in a lifetime worldwide theatrical gross of $379 million. While this was profitable, the negative reaction from fans and critics was substantial. Currently, the film holds an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 16% from critics and 28% from audiences.

godzilla4Something I have never been able to wrap my head around in regards to this film is why there was so much attempted humor injected into the screenplay. The original Godzilla, as well as the themes that surround it, are all very bleak. Humor just doesn’t match what these movies are about, unless it was written in a very grim and dark way. Godzilla, however, isn’t darkly-minded in its humor: it is cartoon-y and slapstick, which creates an effect of tonal whiplash. What is even weirder is that the humor clearly wasn’t added after some bad test screening: it was unquestionably designed that way. The comedy background of most of the cast makes it really hard to argue against this idea. Worse yet, the humor just isn’t funny. Despite the presence of some talented comedic actors, they all seem to struggle to make their material funny, which boils down to an issue of either direction or writing. In the case of Emmerich, it was almost certainly both.

Another issue that I have with the film were the general designs of the monsters: they just aren’t terribly interesting. Their appearances aren’t particularly imposing or intimidating, and it is hard to nail down exactly why. Apparently, Emmerich wanted his monster to be sleek and fast, which aren’t ways one would describe Godzilla. That focus on agility makes the beast seem a bit too toned and athletic, which just doesn’t fit for a creature that is supposed to be frightening. The color and texture doesn’t seem right either: the original Godzilla was designed to look burned, and was patterned after documented radiation burns from Hiroshima. That lack of scarring and texture robs the monster of a crucial tangibility, as well as further erases a subliminal aspect of the message of the original film. Replacing that texture and charred coloration just further drives home how much this film misses the point.

godzilla5Personally, I think the very concept of an American production re-imagining Godzilla is basically unacceptable. Godzilla is a film that is about Japan and the Japanese. It deals with the nation’s grief, pain, and politics in the wake of horrific war, and a subsequent conflict of identity that came about as a result. An American perspective just doesn’t add anything: at worse, it takes away.

That said, Godzilla is not a movie that can’t be remade well. In fact, I absolutely loved the updated themes and concepts addressed in Shin Godzilla, and I think it is a shame more folks haven’t seen it. While I can’t recommend the Godzilla from 1998, I can definitely recommend that people check out Shin Godzilla.

Overall, Godzilla was an ill-conceived and ill-executed cash grab intended to capitalize on the dinosaur craze in the wake of Jurassic Park. It is a wholly soulless endeavor. Every time I re-watch it, I forget why I did. If you have positive nostalgic feelings about it, I wouldn’t recommend casting your gaze backwards. However, if you are a bit of a movie trivia buff, the story behind this film’s production is pretty interesting, and might justify a re-watch to daydream of what might have been.

Eragon

Eragon

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Today, I’m going to take a look at a 2006 movie that desperately wanted to kick-start the next big blockbuster franchise: Eragon.

The plot of Eragon is summarized on IMDb as follows:

In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realizes he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.

The screenplay for Eragon was ultimately credited to Peter Buchman, whose other credits include Jurassic Park III and the two-part 2008 biopic on life of Che Guevara. However, this was also settled after some significant disagreements on the credits were brought to the Writer’s Guild of America, so other parties were clearly involved with the writing.

The source material for Eragon was the first installment of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle novel series, which is also entitled Eragon. The book was initially self-published in 2002, but gained a wider following after its republishing in 2003. It wound up being a best-selling children’s franchise for years, spawning three successful sequels.

eragon5Eragon was directed by Stefen Fangmeier, a successful visual effects worker who has contributed to Game of Thrones, Twister, Jurassic Park, The Mask, Small Soldiers, and Galaxy Quest, among others. However, this was his first (and so far, only) directorial project.

The cast for the film includes Jeremy Irons (Dungeons & Dragons, The Lion King, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich, Burn After Reading, Rounders), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Sienna Guillory (Luther, High-Rise), and Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey).

eragon2The cinematographer for Eragon was Hugh Johnson, who also shot the films The Chronicles of Riddick and G.I. Jane.

The film ultimately required the work of three editors, likely due to studio-mandated re-cuts. These credited editors were Chris Lebenzon (Radio, Big Fish, xXx, Con Air), Masahiro Hirakubo (Trainspotting, The Beach, The White Helmets), and Roger Barton (World War Z, Bad Boys 2, Speed Racer, Gone In Sixty Seconds).

The music for Eragon was composed by Patrick Doyle, who also provided scores for Donnie Brasco, Thor, Brave, and Carlito’s Way, among others.

eragon4Apparently, both Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart were considered for the role that ultimately went to Jeremy Irons. However, both men were unavailable for the same reason: the filming of X-Men: The Last Stand.

Interestingly, Eragon was the last major Hollywood film to get a VHS home release, in 2007. This followed decades of the format’s dominance, dating back to the late 1970s.

Eragon was made on a production budget of $100 million, on which it brought in a total lifetime theatrical gross of $249.5 million, making a nice profit. However, it wasn’t nearly as successful as hoped, not was it received well by fans or critics. Thus, the sequels never came to fruition.

Speaking of the film’s reception, Eragon currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 16% from critics and 46% from audiences. All of these scores are pretty far from positive, and film is remembered widely as a failure as a result.

The first thing that has to be said about Eragon is that the effects haven’t aged well. Even if the effects looked spectacular at the time, rapid technology changes and developments have been particularly cruel to CGI-heavy movies from the mid-2000s. Looking back with an eye accustomed to current films, going back a few years draws some really unfavorable comparisons to more developed works. However, I seem to remember seeing Eragon when it was released, and not being impressed by the dragon. It might look fantastic in an animated setting, but it doesn’t seem to interact with the tangible world like it should, which stands out dramatically.

As far as the performances go, the thing that I most noticed was how obviously checked out John Malkovich is throughout the run time. I suspect that his part wrapped with only a few days of shooting, and he clearly was not into the zone for it. While his dialogue is certainly terrible, the level of dispassion in his deliveries is hard to match if you were trying. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Irons is pretty solid: he is a guy who tends to put in good performances no matter what, and he manages to weave his way around some shoddy writing. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable: particularly the lead, who is the living embodiment of white bread.

eragon3One of the biggest criticisms that has been levied at the source material for Eragon is how apparently derivative it is from other science fiction and fantasy works. While it might be easy to attribute this to the author simply following the patterns of the monomyth, I think this goes far beyond following the broad strokes of the Hero’s journey. Only having the reference of the film to go by, I was struck by how many story beats and sequences reminded me of Star Wars, one of the most popular and recognizable adherents to the monomyth. Typically, the Hero’s journey is a loose blueprint, which you only notice if you are specifically looking for it. Honestly, you shouldn’t notice it if the writing is well done: you want to be in a position of familiarity without feeling like you are going through the motions of a routine. It is hard to be invested in a story that plays out like a paint by numbers puzzle. However, that is exactly what Eragon is: a story that reeks of unwelcome familiarity, like a greasy spoon meal that violently revolts in the digestive tract.

One of the biggest issues that looms over Eragon like a fog is the then-recency of the highly successful and well-received Lord of the Rings trilogy, helmed by Peter Jackson.  The comparison is highly unfavorable on pretty much every level: production design, performances, makeup, visual effects, writing, cinematography, music, etc. Just skimming through contemporaneous critical reviews, it is clear that Lord of the Rings was still heavily entrenched in the minds of the public. Even if Eragon had been good, the comparison was inevitably going to be drawn, and there was no way that the judgement was going to be in Eragon‘s favor. I’m sure the producers had this notion of being able to find a sweet spot between Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, but that was clearly short-sighted, and put way too much pressure on the back of Eragon.

Another big issue I have with the film is how many plot threads and characters are being balanced throughout the story. Even though a lot of things were changed and cut through the process of the adaptation (to the immense ire of the book’s fan base), I still think that there is way too much happening. There are a number of characters that I don’t even recall being named, like the leader of the resistance group. Introductions are blown through in a split second, which makes caring about any of the characters really difficult.

Overall, I think that Eragon was built on excessively lofty expectations and a foundation of sand. There’s nothing particularly worth recommending about the movie: as much as I love Jeremy Irons, he isn’t enough of a force to save it. The producers were clearly blinded by the profit potential of a youth fantasy franchise with familiar elements of both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and didn’t give consideration to meeting the quality of those films. On top of that, I’m thinking that the screenplay could have used a lot more work, and the whole film could almost certainly have benefited from the oversight of a seasoned director rather than a first-timer.

Last Action Hero

Last Action Hero
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Today, I’m going to take a look at a deconstructionist action comedy classic: Last Action Hero.

The plot of Last Action Hero is summarized on IMDb as follows:

With the help of a magic ticket, a young film fan is transported into the fictional world of his favorite action film character.

Last Action Hero has four officially credited writers, though it is widely known that others also contributed to the screenplay. One of these uncredited writers was the late Carrie Fisher, who frequently did script doctoring in the 1980s and 1990s. The four writers who are officially associated with the film are Shane Black (The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad), David Arnott (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), Adam Leff (PCU, Bio-Dome), and Zak Penn (The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand, Suspect Zero).

The director for Last Action Hero was John McTiernan, a highly-regarded action film director who has been responsible for movies like Die Hard, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Predator, The 13th Warrior, and The Hunt For Red October.

The astounding cast of Last Action Hero includes Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jingle All The Way, Total Recall, The Running Man, Terminator), Charles Dance (Space Truckers, Game of Thrones), Tom Noonan (Anomalisa, The Astronaut’s Wife, RoboCop 2, Wolfen), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus, Grand Budapest Hotel, Surviving The Game), Ian McKellen (X-Men, The Keep, Lord of the Rings), and Austin O’Brien (Lawnmower Man, Lawnmower Man 2).

lah3The cinematographer for the film was Dean Semler, whose other shooting credits include Super Mario Bros, Dances With Wolves, Cocktail, The Road Warrior, Razorback, Waterworld, Young Guns, Bruce Almighty, Stealth, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, among many others.

Last Action Hero had two primary editors: John Wright (The Incredible Hulk, The Passion of the Christ, The 13th Warrior, Speed, The Running Man) and Richard A. Harris (Titanic, The Golden Child, Fletch, True Lies, The Bad News Bears).

The musical score for the movie was composed by Michael Kamen, who has had a ton of credits over his career: The Iron Giant, X-Men, Event Horizon, Hudson Hawk, Road House, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Highlander, Action Jackson, and Brazil among them.

One of the most memorable gags in the movie occurs in the fictitious movie universe within the movie, in which Schwarzenegger doesn’t exist. In an attempt to prove that their reality is false, Slater is led into a video store by Danny, who shows him a standee of Terminator 2, only to see Sylvester Stallone listed as the star instead of Schwarzenegger. This is a sort of nod to the similarities between the two actors’ movies in the 1980s and 1990s, which were, at times, indistinguishable.

lah5On November 5, 2013, the online outlet A.V. Club ran a feature imploring people to give Last Action Hero a re-watch and re-evaluation. While there are plenty who still speak ill of the movie, the reception to it has certainly warmed over the years.

Rumor has it that Alan Rickman turned down the role in Last Action Hero ultimately filled by Charles Dance, despite the fact that the role was written with him in mind, due to the pay not being high enough. Initially, Timothy Dalton was cast to fill in, but ultimately had to drop out before filming, leaving the path open for Dance. Apparently, Dance had a tongue-in-cheek t-shirt made that read “I’m Cheaper Than Alan Rickman” as a result.

The AC/DC song “Big Gun” was written and produced specifically for Last Action Hero, much like their earlier song “Who Made Who” was done for the infamous Stephen King movie, Maximum Overdrive.

At one point, Steven Spielberg was approached to helm Last Action Hero, but turned it down in order to pursue making Schindler’s List.

In the last act of Last Action Hero, Ian McKellen surprisingly portrays the character of Death from the classic film The Seventh Seal, which was originally played by Bengt Ekerot.

One of the more clever references in the film pokes fun at F. Murray Abraham’s award-winning role as Salieri in Amadeus, and his subsequent type-casting as a movie villain. When he first appears on screen, Danny tells Slater not to trust him, explaining that “he killed Mozart!”

Last Action Hero was made on a production budget of $85 million, on which it grossed just over $187 million in its international lifetime theatrical run. While this was ultimately profitable, it was far below the lofty expectations placed upon it.

Last Action Hero currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% from audiences and 37% from critics. While these scores are certainly low, the movie has been winning over a steady cult following in the years since its release.

Personally, I really like Last Action Hero, and not just because of its clever, genre-aware screenplay. Schwarzenegger is genuinely charming in the movie, and might be in the top form of his career comedically. Likewise, Charles Dance is absolutely haunting as the film’s villain, but also manages to be quite funny at times.

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One of the most lauded aspects of the movie, at least nowadays, is its screenplay’s expert execution of genre deconstruction, long before that style came into fashion with films like Scream or Cabin In The Woods.  More importantly, the screenplay for Last Action Hero shows a lot of respect for its audience: it gives us the benefit of the doubt that we have seen action movies before, and uses that prior knowledge to either play into or subvert our expectations.

Another thing that I particularly enjoy about Last Action Hero is its general design. There are lots of small details that distinctly contrast reality from the world of the movies: for instance, the color and lighting vary greatly between the two settings. The movie world is always evenly lit and sunny, filled with bright yellows and oranges. Reality, on the other hand, is almost always shown at night, with long shadows stretching down alleyways. The only lights and colors come from neon signs on the streets. This provides an instant rubric for where any given action is taking place, without having to constantly establish whether characters are inside or outside of the fantasy world. For a movie with this level of depth, that kind of detail really matters: it keeps the audience subconsciously on track with the changing settings.

Overall, I think that Last Action Hero is a brilliant action-comedy, particularly for anyone who enjoys the action genre movies that dominated the 1980s. It manages to build an interesting story around the fantastical fun of walking through a movie world, and the humor generally works. The cast is immensely deep, and the knowing cameos and nods to other genre pictures make for a damn fun time. For bad movie fans, action movie fans, and pretty much anyone who enjoys a little bit of 1980s/1990s nostalgia, I highly recommend giving Last Action Hero a shot, or giving it a second look.

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Uninvited

Uninvited

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Today I am going to take a look at a truly bizarre low budget film about a killer cat: 1988’s Uninvited.

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

A mutated killer cat finds its way on-board a yacht.

Uninvited was produced, written, and directed by Greydon Clark, who is probably best known for his work on the Joe Don Baker movies Final Justice and Joysticks.

The music for the film was provided by Dan Slider, who most notably composes and orchestrates the music for the long-running television series America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The cinematographer for Uninvited was Nicholas von Sternberg, who shot the blaxsploitation classic Dolemite, Greydon Clark’s films Final Justice and Joysticks, and David DeCoteau’s infamous Dr. Alien.

uninvited2The cast of the film is headlined by George Kennedy, who is best known for more acclaimed movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Dirty Dozen, and is by far the most recognizable face in the lot. Other cast members include Alex Cord (Airwolf), Clu Galuger (Return of the Living Dead), Clare Carey (Coach), and Toni Hudson (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III).

The year prior to Uninvited, a similar movie was released in China called Evil Cat, which also follows the sinister exploits of a blood-thirsty feline.

Currently, Uninvited holds an impressively low 4.0/10 IMDb user rating, along with a 50% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I sincerely believe that there is only reason that this movie is at all remembered: the cat monster puppet. Holy crap, this cat puppet is honestly one of the worst movie effects I have ever seen. With that said, this movie is simultaneously made and broken by that ridiculous cat puppet. Without it, the movie would have been completely forgettable, and totally lost to the ages. With it, the movie is exponentially more atrocious, but enough so that it has stuck with people through the years.

uninvited4Beyond the puppet, there isn’t much to say about the movie. As you might expect, it has a really slow story, which is fairly typical of this sort of b-movie. If the story had stayed targeted on the cat, there might have been some potential, but the focus regularly drifts to a group of teenagers and a couple of criminals, who are all pretty dull.

Outside of a couple of interesting bulging vein effects, the technical aspects of the movie are pretty much what you would expect from this sort of flick: there are a lot of sound issues, the music is hilariously awful, and the visuals certainly aren’t anything to write home about.

While Uninvited showcases an interesting idea and original concept, I think this was a case of the filmmakers vision exceeding his grasp. With such a low budget, there is just no way that an elaborate cat-demon could have been pulled off adequately.  While that may mean that this movie was doomed from the start, I can certainly say that I am glad it exists, because it is so unique. I highly recommend looking up some clips and stills from the movie, but I certainly don’t endorse sitting through it. The pacing issues make sitting through the whole run time a little too much of a slog, but the cat puppet action simply can’t be missed.

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The Happening

The Happening

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Today, I’ll be taking a look at what is arguably the low point of M. Night Shyamalan’s film career to date: 2008’s The Happening.

The plot of The Happening is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A science teacher, his wife, and a young girl struggle to survive a plague that causes those infected to commit suicide.

The Happening was written and directed by the one and only M. Night Shyamalan, whose whiplash-inducing up and down career has included films like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, After Earth, Signs, and Split.

The cast of the movie includes the likes of Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Boogie Nights, The Fighter, The Other Guys), Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer, Elf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Betty Buckley (Carrie, Wyatt Earp), John Leguizamo (John Wick, Bloodline, Super Mario Brothers, Spawn), and Alan Ruck (Twister, Speed, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

The cinematographer for The Happening was Tak Fujimoto, who also shot Devil, The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, Pretty In Pink, and Where the Buffalo Roam, among others. The film’s editor was Conrad Buff IV, who has had credits that range from comedies like Monster Trucks, True Lies, and Space Balls to science fiction like The Abyss, Species, and Terminator 2.

The musical score for the film was composed by James Newton Howard, one of M. Night Shyamalan’s most frequent collaborators. On top of The Happening, he also did the music for the films Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler, Green Lantern, The Dark Knight, The Last Airbender, Lady In The Water, Dreamcatcher, Space Jam, and Waterworld.

Mark Wahllberg has since denounced The Happening, saying that he primarily took the job because of the opportunity to portray a science teacher, rather than a cop or a crook.

Amy Adams, who has since become one of the most acclaimed actresses in Hollywood, turned down the lead role in The Happening that eventually went to Zooey Deschanel.

The Happening was made on a production budget of $48 million, on which it took in a worldwide, lifetime gross of $163.5 million. While this was almost certainly profitable, the film was absolutely brutalized by critics and audiences alike: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.0/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 24% from audiences.

One of the few positive reviews for The Happening interestingly came from one of the most well-regarded film critics of the time: Roger Ebert. In his review, he referred to the film as, among other things, “too thoughtful for the summer action season.” At the same time, he was prescient in predicting the film’s critical failure, writing:

I suspect I’ll be in the minority in praising this film. It will be described as empty, uneventful, meandering. But for some, it will weave a spell.

Watching the performances and deliveries in The Happening, it is hard to believe that the actors weren’t intentionally playing for comedy. In particular, Wahlberg’s performance is surreal in its hilarity: despite the tone around him, he managed to get a number of laughs out of me, despite the fact that there is no overt humor in the screenplay. His conversation with a plastic plant is honestly funnier than most actual comedy routines these days if you ask me.

One of the most obvious issues with The Happening is its underlying message. More specifically, the message is far too heavy-handed, and lacks the subtlety to make it truly powerful. That said, there is a kernel of an interesting idea within The Happening: plants fighting back against humans as an evolutionary defense sounds like the early makings for a pretty nifty creature feature, but it would have to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek to be effective.

One of the few positive things that can be said about The Happening is that it had an R-rating, and managed to use it to a decent effect. A number of the suicide scenes are impressively gory, and provide brief moments of loose entertainment in a generally very slow, plodding film.

Overall, The Happening had an interesting foundation in its idea, but a bunch of things clearly went wrong over the course of seeing that vision to the screen. While it is easy to place blame on the cast for their performances, I think that the writing is far more responsible for the film’s larger issues: Shyamalan might have considered having someone co-write, re-write, or at least punch up the script before handing it wholesale to his actors. However, I suspect Shyamalan was a bit overprotective of the screenplay, given he was also the film’s director. Generally, screenwriters are out the door early in production, and the director is free to alter the work to fit their vision after that. However, when the director and the writer are the same person, necessary screenplay cuts and changes may not happen out of a sense of pride and defensiveness. If there is anything that is known about M. Night Shyamalan at this point, it is that he is a man prone to pride and defensiveness, so the shoe does seem to fit.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think The Happening is a pretty fun ride, even though it is a bit slow in the pacing department. In particular, Wahlberg’s flailing in his role is captivating, like watching a cat try to get sticky tape off of its paw: the motions and expressions are excessive, while always being just a little too unnatural to be believed as earnest. The absolutely brutal death sequences in the movie add a little more entertainment as well, primarily due to their bizarre natures. That said, I think this is a movie best suited for bad movie fans: I’m not sure if there would be as much fun to sap out of the film for your typical, casual moviegoer.

The Core

The Core

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Today, I am going to take a look at one of the most infamously terrible natural disaster movies: 2003’s The Core.

The plot of The Core is summarized on IMDb as follows:

The only way to save Earth from catastrophe is to drill down to the core and set it spinning again.

The screenplay for The Core had two credited writers: Cooper Layne, who also penned the remake of The Fog, and John Rogers, who wrote Catwoman and worked extensively on Cosby and Leverage.

The Core was directed by Jon Amiel, whose other film works include Copycat, Creation, Entrapment, and The Man Who Knew Too Little. On top of that, his television credits include work on shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, Marco Polo, The Singing Detective, and Hemlock Grove.

The substantial cast for the movie includes Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking, Suspect Zero), Stanley Tucci (Road To Perdition, Lucky Number Slevin, Spotlight, The Lovely Bones), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, Insomnia, Boys Don’t Cry, The Next Karate Kid), Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Flight), Delroy Lindo (Domino, Sahara, Gone In Sixty Seconds, Broken Arrow, Get Shorty), Tcheky Karyo (Bad Boys, The Patriot, GoldenEye), and Richard Jenkins (Bone Tomahawk, White House Down, The Cabin In The Woods, Six Feet Under).

thecore4The cinematographer for The Core was John Lindley, who also shot St Vincent, Legion, The Good Son, The Sum Of All Fears, True Believer, Field of Dreams, The Serpent and The Rainbow, Pleasantville, and Money Train. Terry Rawlings, who has cut films like GoldenEye, Entrapment, Alien, Alien 3, and Legend over his career, provided the primary editing.

The musical score for the movie was provided by Christopher Young, whose other music credits include movies like Sinister, The Rum Diary, Drag Me To Hell, Spider-Man 3, Swordfish, Rounders, Trick or Treat, and Hider In The House, among many others.

A fictitious material known as “Unobtanium” is referred to a handful of times in the movie. “Unobtanium” is essentially a short-hand code word in science-fiction to refer to a non-existent material with inexplicable powers or properties. The term will occasionally make its way into film scripts: most prominently in James Cameron’s Avatar. However, it is widely viewed as a lazy move.

At the University of British Columbia, The Core is routinely shown in a course on “Earth and Ocean Science” as a demonstration of bad science in movies. However, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait, who specializes in criticizing bad movie science, didn’t take as much of an issue with the movie as you might think.

The Core is essentially a high-budget remake of Deep Core, a low-budget science fiction movie from 2000 that starred Wil Wheaton, Bruce McGill, and Terry Farrell.

Made on a $60 million budget, The Core wound up with a lifetime theatrical gross of $73.5 million. While this was able to cover the costs of production on paper, it likely didn’t make much in the way of profit once advertising and post-production costs were taken into account.

thecore3Critically, The Core was instantly the victim of mockery for its outlandish concept. It currently holds an IMDb user score of 5.4/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 41% from critics 33% from audiences, and is widely remembered as one of the goofier disaster movies of the era.

Upon a re-watch, the first thing that stood out to me about The Core is that the effects haven’t aged well: a lot of the CGI that probably looked good in the early 2000s looks like it belongs in a SyFy original movie today. While this is a testament to the speed of technological innovation, it doesn’t do the film any favors.

One of the reasons that The Core is still remembered today is because of the huge liberties it took with movie magic science. While the premise is certainly goofy, I didn’t find the bogus science nearly as distracting as I expected: the film actually does a pretty good job of immersing the audience in its exaggerated reality, and somehow it holds up the suspension of disbelief.

thecore2Aaron Eckhart, as always, is a charming lead. However, I feel like he was a bit miscast: the character was clearly written to be a bit of a helpless nerd who lacks assertiveness and confidence, and who grows from the experiences of the story. Eckhart, however, just looks too much like a movie star. Outside of his pretty awful hair cut, I didn’t find him a good fit for his character’s needs. Stanley Tucci, on the other hand, is fantastically hammy in his semi-villainous role, and was perfectly cast. Outside of those two, there are so many character actors in this movie that I couldn’t possibly list them all.  What is important, however, is that they all put in decent performances, from the top to the bottom of the cast.

Rewatching it now, one of the biggest issues I have with The Core are the excessively agonizing character deaths for generally likable characters. Typically, the more painful deaths are saved for characters with vices, or ones who have in some way earned their demise, based on their decisions or behavior. Think about how often the unlikable jocks are killed off in horror movies, for instance. In The Core, however, the two most brutal deaths are experienced by supporting characters who are, more or less, flawless. Why do these characters suffer such terrible deaths, like being slowly crushed or boiled alive? My best guess is that this was a simple way to raise the stakes of the plot, and reinforce the inherent danger of their mission. However, it definitely left me with a weird taste in my mouth. The traditional karmic wheel that mandates character deaths just doesn’t seem to be in motion.

Overall, The Core is a very shallow movie when it comes to plot and character. However, it almost makes up for it with the performances from the cast, and the sheer silliness and popcorn-friendliness of the flick. The biggest issue with the movie in retrospect are the overabundance of CGI effects, which certainly haven’t aged well. That said, I think this is a b-level blockbuster worth digging back up for a fun watch: just don’t expect much substance underneath the surface.

I Am Wrath

I Am Wrath

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Today, I’m going to take a look at a 2016 direct-to-video action flick starring John Travolta: I Am Wrath.

The plot of I Am Wrath is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A man is out for justice after a group of corrupt police officers are unable to catch his wife’s killer.

I Am Wrath was directed by Chuck Russell, who is best known for movies like the 1988 remake of The Blob, The Mask, The Scorpion King, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.

The cast for the movie is headlined by John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Face/Off. Grease) and Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Man of Steel), with additional performances by Amanda Schull (Suits, Twelve Monkeys), Sam Trammell (True Blood), Patrick St. Esprit (Narcos, Sons of Anarchy), and Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business, Wedding Crashers).

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The music for I Am Wrath was composed by Haim Mazar, whose other credits include The Iceman, The Taking of Deborah Logan, and the television show Teen Mom.

The cinematographer for the film was Andrzej Sekula, who shot the cult favorite movies American Psycho, Hackers, Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, and also directed the horror sequel Cube 2: Hypercube.

I Am Wrath was filmed primarily in the city of Columbus, OH, a non-typical location for a film production. A number of local landmarks show up in the movie, including the Ohio Statehouse, the illuminated arches of High Street, and the local diner chain Buckeye Donuts.

Rumor has it that the initial plan for the film was for William Friedkin, of The Exorcist and The French Connection, to direct, with Nicolas Cage in the starring role. However, numerous delays led to the eventual combination of Russell and Travolta.

The title of the film, I Am Wrath, is a reference to the Bible passage Jeremiah 6:11, which reads as follows in the New International Version of the text:

But I am full of the wrath of the Lord,
    and I cannot hold it in.

“Pour it out on the children in the street
    and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it,
    and the old, those weighed down with years.

Upon their release, the promotional images and posters for I Am Wrath were the subject of widespread online mockery for their incompetent and awkward construction.

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“this…has left me at a complete loss for words. All I can do is implore you to share this post with as many people as possible. The world needs to know.” – Scott Wampler, Birth.Movies.Death.

I Am Wrath ultimately released straight to video, and was not received warmly. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 11% from critics and 34% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

For the past few years, I have been living and working in Columbus, OH, so I happened to be around while I Am Wrath was filming locally. Outside of a few blips in the news about John Travolta being in town for a role, I didn’t hear a whole lot about it. However, it was interesting to see familiar locations on screen while watching the movie: for folks in New York or Los Angeles, that is probably no big deal, but seeing Columbus on screen was kind of bizarre.

Despite a handful of interesting visuals peppered throughout the movie, I Am Wrath is far and away dominated and defined by its central performances. Unfortunately, thanks to John Travolta’s half-sleepwalking rendition of a mercenary / car factory administrator, the movie is all the weaker because of it. That said, Christopher Meloni provides the film with an iota of charm and levity with his improvised wit, though he is woefully missed when not on screen (which is, unfortunately, often). Meloni, unlike Travolta, seems to understand the schlock that he is wrapped up in, and leans into the absurdity of the situation, and clearly enjoys his tough guy routine.

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Travolta, by contrast, is a black hole: a human-shaped void that made me question if this was the same hammy scenery-chewer I remembered from Face/Off, Swordfish, and Battlefield Earth. Say what you will about any of those performances, but the guy was never lacking in passion or enthusiasm in those roles.

Beyond Travolta’s banal lead performance, the biggest issue with I Am Wrath is almost certainly the screenplay, which is basically a paint-by-numbers revenge plot. There are a few things I liked about it, though: for instance, there’s a RoboCop-like dynamic between some of the villains, which is always nice to see. However, there is also a lot of bad dialogue, and way too much information is revealed far too blatantly for the message to have much of a punch. Worst of all, I think the I Am Wrath screenplay has one of the most egregious and hilarious examples of a placeholder character name making it all the way to the final draft: Governor Merserve, the self-serving Governor. That’s just inexcusable.

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Honestly, I wish there was something to recommend about I Am Wrath. Unless you are a big fan of Christopher Meloni, or a Columbus local interested in seeing the city on screen, there just isn’t anything compelling here. Even the action sequences aren’t terribly enthralling, and are by and large forgettable. If you want a cheesy action movie, look into whatever Nic Cage has out this week, and give this one a pass.