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Water Foul: “Leviathan”

Leviathan

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Continuing with the “Water Foul” spotlight on some of the worst aquatic terrors in cinematic history, the next feature I will be covering is 1989’s “Leviathan.”

The two credited writers for “Leviathan” were David Webb Peoples (“Blade Runner,” “12 Monkeys,” “Unforgiven”) and Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard,” “The Fugitive”). The director, George P. Cosmatos, is best known for films like “Cobra,” “Tombstone,” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” for which he received a Golden Raspberry nomination.

The cinematographer on “Leviathan” was Alex Thomson, who has worked as a director of photography and camera operator on such films as “Demolition Man,” “Cliffhanger,” “Labyrinth,” and “Fahrenheit 451.”

The “Leviathan” visual effects team was comprised of Rene Clark (“Detroit Rock City,” “Bunraku”), C. Mitchell Bryan (“Robot Jox,” “Stargate”), James Belohovek (“Troll,” “Evil Dead II,” “The Thing”), Ed Thompson (“Mystery Men,” “SpaceCamp”), Paul Stewart (“Tango & Cash,” “Speed 2: Cruise Control”), David B. Sharp (“Fortress,” “Muppets From Space,” “Event Horizon”), Barry Nolan (“Maximum Overdrive,” “Dune”), Niels Nielson (“Lawnmower Man 2,” “The Fifth Element”), Richard Malzahn (“Kull The Conqueror,” “Suburban Commando,” “Joe Dirt,” “Serenity”), and Jurgen Heimann (“Pacific Rim,” “Attack The Block,” “Hellboy”).

leviathan6The makeup effects on “Leviathan” were done by a group that included Katalin Elek (“Double Team,” “SpaceCamp,” “The Monster Squad”), Bruce Barlow (“From Beyond,” “Virtuosity,” “Arena”), Zoltan Elek (“Street Fighter,” “Timecop,” “The Day After”), and John Rosengrant (“Small Soldiers,” “Congo,” “Batman Returns,” “The Avengers”).

The massive special effects and creature design team for “Leviathan” was provided by the legendary Stan Winston Studios, and included, aside from Stan Winston himself (“Bat People,” “Lake Placid”): Tom Woodruff Jr. (“Tremors,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”), Jeff Kennemore (“The Garbage Pail Kids Movie,” “Class of 1999”), Richard J. Landon (“Predator 2,” “Constantine”), Shane Mahan (“Iron Man,” “Inspector Gadget”), Karen Mason (“DeepStar Six,” “Where The Wild Things Are”), Pat McClung (“The Abyss,” “Masters of the Universe”), Jim McPherson (“Slumber Party Massacre II,” “State of Play,” “Deep Blue Sea”), Hal Miles (“976-EVIL,” “Leprechaun 4: In Space”), Brian Penikas (“Tank Girl,” “Face/Off,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Interstellar”), John Rosengrant (“Aliens,” “Predator,” “Small Soldiers”), Andy Schoneberg (“Mortal Kombat,” “Planet Terror”), Grant Arndt (“Hell Comes To Frogtown”), John Blake (“From Beyond,” “Starship Troopers,” “Showgirls”), Roger Borelli (“Dollman”), Mario Cassar (“Cutthroat Island,” “Final Justice”), Craig Caton (“The Stuff,” “Big Trouble In Little China”), Steve Frakes (“Evolution,” “Jumanji”), Mark Garbarino (“Kung Fu Killer,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” “Robot Holocaust”), Alec Gillis (“Dragonball Evolution,” “Grown Ups 2”), Steven James (“Mac and Me,” “Baby’s Day Out”), Steve Johnson (“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Humanoids from the Deep”), Michael Spatola (“C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud,” “Going Overboard,” “Zomboobies!”), Shannon Shea (“Ghosts of Mars,” “In The Mouth of Madness,” “House”), and many, many others.

LEVIATHAN, 1989, (c) MGM

The producers on “Leviathan” included the Italian duo of Luigi and Aurelio De Laurentis, the brother and nephew of famed producer Dino De Laurentis. Aurelio went on to act as executive producer on “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” as well as a number of Italian features. The two other producers on the flick were brothers Charles and Lawrence Gordon, the founders of Largo Entertainment. Combined, they produced such films as “Die Hard,” “Waterworld,” “Field of Dreams,” “K-9,” “Predator,” and “Predator 2.

The music for “Leviathan” was provided by Jerry Goldsmith, a proficient film composer and conductor with over 250 composition credits, including “Small Soldiers,” “Congo,” “Supergirl,” “Capricorn One,” “Total Recall,” “The ‘Burbs,” “Chinatown,” and “The Omen,” among countless others.

The two editors for “Leviathan” were John F. Burnett, best known for “Grease” and “Grease 2,” and Roberto Silvi, who would later cut “Tombstone.”

The production designer for “Leviathan” was Ron Cobb, who also worked on an assortment of other films, including “Space Truckers,” “Conan The Barbarian,” “Firefly,” “Robot Jox,” “Alien,” and “Total Recall.”

The cast for “Leviathan” included Peter Weller (“RoboCop”), Ernie Hudson (“Congo,” “Ghostbusters”), Daniel Stern (“Home Alone,” “City Slickers”), Richard Crenna (“First Blood,” “Judging Amy”), Amanda Pays (“The Flash,” “Max Headroom”), Lisa Eilbacher (“The Last Samurai,” “Beverly Hills Cop”), Hector Elizondo (“Chicago Hope”), and Meg Foster (“They Live,” “Masters of the Universe”).

leviathan5The story of “Leviathan” follows a crew of deep sea minors who stumble across a mysterious Soviet shipwreck that contains strange, genetic monstrosities that begin to hunt down the crew members.

Interestingly, very little of “Leviathan” was actually filmed underwater, but the illusion is built up impressively with the lighting, particles in the air, and misting. I was surprised how believable the ultimate product actually was, though it is certainly noticeable when you are keeping an eye out for it.

The reception for “Leviathan” wasn’t exactly positive, though people seem to have softened to it in retrospect: it current has a 5.7 IMDb rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 14% (critics) and 25% (audience).

The domestic gross for “Leviathan” was just under $16 million on a budget of $20 million, meaning it failed to make back its money in the theatrical run. Of course, the fact that the 1989 movie market was saturated by deep sea adventures (six in total: “DeepStar Six,” “The Abyss,” “Endless Descent,” “Lords Of The Deep,” “The Evil Below,” and “Leviathan”) certainly didn’t help its odds of being profitable.

leviathan1There is a solid little review on ReelFilm.com that talks about one of the criticisms I have most often seen about “Leviathan”: specifically, the dragging middle section of the flick:

Cosmatos ultimately spends far too much time dwelling on the various characters’ day-to-day exploits aboard the mining station – to the extent that it becomes impossible not to wish that the aforementioned threat would hurry up and make its appearance, already

The focus on the characters does weigh things down a little in the middle, but I also thought that it made the characters a little more real and relate-able. They aren’t expertly written by any means, but the crew is more interesting than your typical sci-fi flick today.

The effects work isn’t bad in “Leviathan,” but it is nowhere near groundbreaking. I did definitely like the early stage design of the creature as a lamprey, which I thought was the coolest aspect of the effects work. However, the ultimate product in the final stage of the creature’s evolution just seems too busy, and looks a little ridiculous because of it.

leviathan4“Leviathan” is a pale comparison to similar sci-fi horror of the era, but it has to be looked at on its own merits if you ask me. It isn’t as flagrant of a rip off as “Humanoids from the Deep,” but it isn’t exactly subtle about borrowing elements from “Alien,” “The Thing,” and “Aliens.” Interestingly, it predated “The Abyss” by just a few months, despite many seeing it as a knock-off of that film in retrospect.

As far as the cast goes, Daniel Stern and Ernie Hudson are pretty great, and ham up their roles well. Peter Weller takes on the lead duties just fine, but as with most of his characters, he isn’t exactly flashy. He has a couple of fantastic lines towards the end of the film, though.

If you ask me, I think “Leviathan” suffers from having too many false endings. The shark bit, for example, was just totally unnecessary, and was immediately follow up with another surprise. You can’t just toy with the pacing and arc that much, particularly at the very end of a story.

1989 was, of course, well into the tail end of the Cold War. It was an interesting touch having the ship and creature be of Soviet origin, given there were a lot of worries about nukes and other weapons going unmaintained or forgotten as the Soviet Union was falling.

Overall, there are some fun bits throughout “Leviathan,” but it isn’t particularly memorable as a whole. It definitely suffered in the public eye by being one in a massive field of deep water movies in 1989. It also drags a bit too much, and borrows a little too heavily from other works, which clearly left a sour taste in many mouths. It is a mostly forgotten flick now, but it is worth revisiting for sure, as it doesn’t merit the harshness of the contemporary criticisms it received upon release.

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Predator 2

Predator 2

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Today’s feature is the urban jungle set follow-up to the action classic “Predator”: “Predator 2,” starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey.

“Predator 2” was written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, the same duo that penned the original “Predator.” However, the screenplay went through a number of different forms, primarily based on the casting, which I will dig into a little bit later.

“Predator 2” was directed by Stephen Hopkins (“A Nightmare on Elm Street 5,” “Lost in Space”), after “Predator” director John McTiernan priced himself out of the production. The cinematographer for “Predator 2” was Peter Levy, who worked on other films such as “Lost in Space” and “Torque” over his career.

The music for “Predator 2” was once again provided by Alan Silvestri (“Predator,” “Forrest Gump,” “Van Helsing,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “Mac & Me”), who modified the original “Predator” theme to include new instruments to reflect the change of location and plot (such as drums to match the Jamaican voodoo gang).

The editing for “Predator 2” is credited to both Mark Goldblatt (“The Punisher,” “Dead Heat,” “Enter The Ninja,” “Super Mario Bros.”) and Bert Lovitt (“RoboCop 3,” “Days of Thunder”), likely because it had to be so extensively edited and re-edited to get the eventual R rating from the MPAA.

One of the producers on “Predator 2” was Joel Silver, who has produced such memorable action flicks as “Hudson Hawk,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Demolition Man,” “The Matrix,” “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Commando,” and “The Warriors.”

The creature creation and effects in “Predator 2” were done by the Stan Winston Studio (“Jurassic Park,” “Lake Placid,” “Congo”), including the Predator’s new alien hunting devices. The production also featured special effects foremen Larz Anderson (“Small Soldiers,” “Smokin’ Aces”) and Albert Delgado (“Tank Girl,” “Scrooged”), as well as pyrotechnician Roy Goode (“Robot Jox”).

predator25The cast of “Predator 2” is headlined by Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon,” “Saw”), with an accessory cast featuring Gary Busey (“The Gingerdead Man,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Buddy Holly Story”), Bill Paxton (“Aliens,” “Twister,” “Slipstream”), Robert Davi (“Maniac Cop 2,” “License to Kill,” “Die Hard,” “In The Mix”), and Adam Baldwin (“Firefly”).

The story of “Predator 2” centers around a police officer investigating a grisly series of murders amidst a gang war and a record heat wave in Los Angeles. The further he digs, however, the stranger the case becomes: leading to an ultimate face off with an alien killing machine.

“Predator 2” features a famous throwaway Easter egg of a xenomorph skull (from the “Alien” franchise) in the Predator’s trophy room. This was meant partially as an homage to the popular comic book series that crossed over between the franchises, but it caused an immense amount of hype among fans, eventually leading to an “Alien vs. Predator” film franchise.

The Predator alien race wound up getting another film all to themselves in 2010’s “Predators,” which was directed by Robert Rodriguez (“From Dusk Til Dawn”) and stars Laurence Fishburne and Adrien Brody. It is a bit more loyal to the original concept of “Predator,” and was certainly better received than “Predator 2” by audiences and critics.

“Predator 2” features some interesting alternate casting trivia. Apparently, Gary Busey’s role was intended initially for Arnold Schwarzenegger to reprise his character from the first film, but he turned it down to do “Terminator 2.” Rumor has it that Patrick Swayze approached to play the lead, and that at least one producer pushed heavily for Steven Seagal to be cast.

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This could have been Schwarzenegger and Seagal. Weird.

The movie was filmed on site in some rougher neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Reportedly, human feces in bags were thrown at the cast and crew from windows above them while filming (something that also happened on “Daredevil” according to the director’s commentary), and a dead body was shockingly discovered at one of the filming locations.

The somewhat outlandish and ruthless Jamaican voodoo gang in “Predator 2” was apparently based on real crime organizations that existed in Kansas City and New York in the 1980s.

“Predator 2” marked the first acting role for Gary Busey after the traumatic motorcycle accident that nearly ended his career, and arguably marked the begin of his decline into b-movies and obscure features.

“Predator 2” was apparently the first film to get an NC-17 rating by the MPAA after it replaced the X rating in September of 1990. This resulted in further editing to get the film down to an R, as films with X / NC-17 ratings have historically struggled to receive significant theatrical distribution.

“Predator 2” had a worldwide theatrical gross of just under $60 million on an estimated budget of $35 million, which made it fairly profitable. However, critics and audiences weren’t particularly impressed with it at the time: it currently has a 6.2 IMDb rating, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 25% (critics) and 44% (audience).

“Predator 2” faced a significant amount of criticism for its depictions of violence, as well as the less than optimal lack of a Schwarzenegger-style action lead. People were mixed on the change of setting from the jungle to the city, but I’m personally a big fan of the change of backdrop and context.

Bill Paxton, as always, is a controversial comedy relief element. Some people love him, and others just can’t stand him. I think this is probably his best comic relief role next to “Aliens,” which I’m sure was no coincidence on the part of the casting.

predator24My biggest issue with the film is that the ending drags on a bit too long, and doesn’t feel particularly satisfying because of it. I generally liked the casting and performances, but there is no doubt that it lacks the staying power of the testosterone-fueled super-cast of the first “Predator.” The effects are probably the biggest strength to the film, but I feel like the cuts made to bring the film down to an R rating did it a bit of a disservice. The Predators still look great though, as do their weapons and gadgets.

Overall, I think “Predator 2” isn’t all that bad of a movie. I believe that it mostly suffers from the comparison to the original, which is by far more memorable and enjoyable. On its own, it is still a bit too slow paced for my liking, but it isn’t awful. Paxton and Busey both ham up their roles, which keeps things a bit entertaining. In general, I just don’t feel strongly about the film, which isn’t good, but also not necessarily bad. If you like the concept of the Predator alien, this is certainly one of the better movies to feature them. In comparison to those “Alien vs. Predator” flicks, it might as well be a lost Orson Welles film.

 

Bargain Bin(ge) New Orleans: The Mushroom

Welcome to the latest installment of the Bargain Bin(ge), where I cover used DVD stores from around the country and the various movies I have plundered from them. This past weekend, I took a trip down to New Orleans: one of the most unique and interesting cities in the United States. Of course, I managed to take some time to dig into a couple of local used media spots between enjoying the cajun food and the sights.

nolaFirst up is an old haunt of mine from my college days at Tulane University: The Mushroom.

mushroom10The Mushroom is sort of an all-purpose alternative interest center: part head shop, part record store, part eclectic emporium. It sits on the corner of Tulane University’s campus, on the second floor of a building that houses both a college bar and one of the most delicious crepe restaurants in the country. Of course, the Mushroom also boasts a significant used DVD section, which I have spent a lot of time digging in over the years.

The most distinctive aspect of The Mushroom, much like New Orleans itself, is the atmosphere. Just check out some of the art on the exterior walls:

mushroom5 mushroom9 mushroom6Did I mention it is also a head shop? In any case, I love the unique flair of the place, both on the inside and the outside. The DVD section is specifically surrounded by t-shirts branded with classic horror and sci-fi movies, which is a nice touch. I picked up a Godzilla shirt there a couple of years ago that I absolutely love, and I was tempted to dig through to find another one. Maybe next time. mushroom8The DVD prices in The Mushroom could be a bit better. However, I came out with 5 dvds (6 movies) for about 15 dollars, which isn’t too bad. The biggest problem is that they usually know when they have something rare or obscure, and they mark them up accordingly. You aren’t going to find any steals here in general, but you will almost certainly find something interesting.

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Shocker / The People Under The Stairs

So, on to the movies I picked up at The Mushroom. First, there is a Wes Craven double feature of “Shocker” and “The People Under The Stairs.” Neither of these are exactly considered highlights in Craven’s career, but they both have fan followings for sure. Also, I haven’t seen either of them, nor did I have copies of them previously. I recently missed a screening of “The People Under The Stairs” at Gateway Film Center, so I’m going to specifically look forward to giving that a watch.
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Iron Eagle

The next find is a bit of a forgotten flick, mostly because of how overshadowed it was by a better film with a similar concept. Years before “Volcano” vs “Dante’s Peak” and “Armageddon” vs “Deep Impact,” there was “Top Gun” vs “Iron Eagle.” I think that this is the first time I have run across a DVD copy of this film, and this is another one I haven’t seen before. I might do a back to back of this and “Top Gun” as a sort of retrospective comparison. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to do that with “Catch-22” and “M.A.S.H” too. Keep your eyes peeled.

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How To Make A Monster

Here is a movie I considered early on as a possibility for Killer Robot Week, but I knocked it out partially because I couldn’t find a copy. So, I was understandably pretty surprised to find a copy of it in the wild. “How To Make A Monster” is a television movie from 2001 that surprisingly features effects work from the legendary creature creator Stan Winston, who certainly had no business working on TV that late into his legendary career. I’ll be interested to see if there is some reason for his involvement, but I’ll save that for a proper review. What is more important to note is that this is a television movie from 2001 about a killer video game, so it is bound to have awful CGI and dated references to controversy over violence in video games. Sounds like a good time to me! The writer/director, George Huang, also did the movie “Swimming With Sharks,” which is basically “Entourage” without the central cast or comedic elements (so, better). It features Kevin Spacey as the intensely abusive and reprehensible super-agent character, and you can just feel how much Piven pulled his character of Gold from the performance. I haven’t seen it in a few years, but I liked it on the initial watch.

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Predator 2

When it comes to sequels failing to live up to the potential of their concepts, “Predator 2” has to be towards the top of that list. Moving the stealthy alien hunter from the jungle into an urban environment sounds like a winner, but then again, so did the idea of combining Predators and Xenomorphs on screen. I haven’t seen this flick in years, but I don’t recall hating it when I saw it years ago. I was just…disappointed. I’ll be interested to see what this movie is like for me now, because it has been at least a decade since I last saw it.

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Virtual Assassin

Here a flick I don’t actually know anything about: “Virtual Assassin” or “CyberJack.” From what I can tell, it is a “Die Hard” knock-off with a sci-fi, high-tech twist. The director, Robert Lee, primarily works as an assistant director, and has been in the crew of such flicks as Uwe Boll’s masterpieces “House of the Dead” and “Alone in the Dark.” The film stars Michael Dudikoff, who is best known as Cannon’s “American Ninja.” He’s had one hell of a b-movie career, and his presence was enough to sell me on giving this thing a shot.

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Lake Placid

Lake Placid

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Today’s review is on “Lake Placid,” a 1999 movie about a gigantic killer crocodile terrorizing a remote lake in Maine.

“Lake Placid” was directed by Steve Miner, who has been working as a director in television and movies since the early 80s. His biggest credits outside of “Lake Placid” are probably “Friday the 13th Part 2,” “Friday the 13th Part III: 3D,” “Halloween H20,” and the 2008 remake of “Day of the Dead.” “Lake Placid” was written by David E. Kelley, who has had significant success creating and writing television shows such as “Boston Legal,” “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal,” “LA Law,” and “Doogie Howser,” but hasn’t done a whole lot of work in movies. Cinematographer Daryn Okada had previously worked with Miner on “Halloween H20,” but most of his experience is interestingly in comedies, such as “Black Sheep” and “Captain Ron,” and has since worked on larger productions such as “Mean Girls” and “Let’s Be Cops.”

“Lake Placid” marks the third film I have covered to feature work from legendary creature creator Stan Winston (the other two being “Small Soldiers” and “The Bat People”). Most seem to consider “Lake Placid” to be one of the lesser entries in his career: he is only creating a crocodile, after all, and most of the heavy lifting is done through CG. However, I still think it looks pretty solid. Even the CG used has held up a lot better than I expected it to, and looks more or less on par with today’s “Sharknadoes” and the other Asylum monster flicks. That isn’t too shabby for 1999.

placid2“Lake Placid” was unsurprisingly a critical failure, currently holding a 40% critics score and 36% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, “Lake Placid” grossed just under 57 million dollars on a budget of 27 million, making it a financial success. The movie eventually got 3 direct-to-tv sequels that received significant airtime on the Sci-Fi / SyFy network, which I think have kept it in the public consciousness longer than it would have otherwise. I personally consider “Lake Placid” to be one of the primary forerunners to the Asylum monster movies that make up the mainstay of SyFy’s original movie lineup today, including “Mega Shark,” “Sharknado,” and “Supercroc.”

The cast of “Lake Placid” is made up primarily of B-list actors, led by Bridget Fonda, who was coming off of starring in Sam Raimi’s 1998 movie “A Simple Plan.” Bill Pullman co-stars, following up on a handful of successful roles in the mid-1990s (“Independence Day,” “Lost Highway”). The rest of the cast includes Brendan Gleeson, Oliver Platt (one of my favorite character actors), and Betty White, who essentially defined her modern persona with her role in this movie.

Essentially, “Lake Placid” follows the formula of “Jaws”: something is killing people in the waters off a small town, but it is unclear what it is. The local police (Gleeson and Pullman) are stumped, which leads to a big city, out-of-towner expert being called in (Fonda). An eccentric hunter then shows up who gives the impression that he can solve the situation (Platt), and off the story goes a-hunting the monster.

placid5Apart from Brody being split in two, there are a few other differences in the formula for “Lake Placid.” Firstly, Hooper is replaced with a woman character, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. This allows for a romance subplot, but also unfortunately opens the door for a lot of lazy, shitty comedy, which I will delve into in a bit. The setting of a lake, as opposed to the ocean, doesn’t allow for the same kind of isolation and character developmental opportunities during the hunting process that is allowed for in “Jaws.” This winds up being a pretty big weakness for the movie: the characters don’t get much depth, because they don’t spend enough time together outside of the action for the audience to get to know them.

placid4For me, the biggest problem for the movie is in its attempts to be funny. I didn’t remember this as a horror comedy, because honestly, it just isn’t. Most of the humor is lazy, dull, or just off the mark in general. Instead of poking at the weaknesses of the genre or the ludicrousness of the plot (see: “Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”), it tries to find humor in the fact that one of the characters is a woman, and can’t handle camping outdoors. It just doesn’t work, because it isn’t funny. There is a way to make a funny movie out of a “Jaws” scenario, but “Lake Placid” just isn’t it.  Honestly, I think someone knew this, because the movie is not marketed as a comedy in any way. On a shelf, it just looks like another monster movie, and that is what it really should have been. Even “Jaws” itself is funnier than this movie, and all of the comedy in that movie is done as relief. There isn’t a single moment in “Lake Placid” (without Betty White in it) that is as funny as any of the comic relief moments in “Jaws,” which is pretty bad for a movie that is trying to be a comedy.

To the movie’s credit, there are a number of things I like in it. Stan Winston’s effects are fantastic as usual, and there is also a pretty cool action sequence or two in which the crocodile takes on a helicopter. Oliver Platt manages to stay charming despite the issues with the dialogue and writing, and is the biggest highlight in the movie outside of Betty White. The ending also taken an interesting turn in that the characters decided not to kill the crocodile, which is unusual for the genre. Over the credits, there is a shot of the tranquilized crocodile being hauled via a semi-truck to Florida, I would assume to be placed in a zoo or preserve. Just from skimming the IMDb boards, this seems to have elicited a mixed reaction from audiences.

As a side note, I can’t help but feel that “Lake Placid” suffers from the “Pacific Rim” effect of having an incredibly poor title that fails to convey the plot of the movie. Surely they could have done better than that, right? Even “Crocodile” or “Croc” would have worked better if you ask me.

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“Crocodile vs Helicopter” would have sufficed

I have seen a good number of comparisons between “Lake Placid”  and “Deep Blue Sea,” another 1999 movie that has developed a bit of a cult following. I personally have a more vivid memory of “Deep Blue Sea,” but on my last re-watch I don’t recall the CGI holding up quite as well as it does in “Lake Placid.” That said, the dialogue and acting seems much better in “Deep Blue Sea,” and it doesn’t try to hit the comedy angle in the way that “Lake Placid” does. Personally, I think that is a weakness in the “Lake Placid” script, so I’m generally on Team “Deep Blue Sea,” but I think it merits another re-watch. It does have an LL Cool J rap, which I don’t believe “Lake Placid” can claim. Point: “Deep Blue Sea.”

Overall, I was surprised at how bad “Lake Placid” is in retrospect, in particular because the things that were bad were not the things I expected. A lot of the problems are in the dialogue and writing: it half-heartedly tries to be self-aware and counter-genre, but the attempts at humor aren’t executed very well. Oliver Platt is a great comedic actor, but even he couldn’t make the dialogue for his character actually funny. In general, I have to agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film: it is “completely wrong-headed from beginning to end.” He hilariously also calls it a “sort of failed Anaconda,” which is an arguably equally awful movie, which Ebert adored for reasons that I don’t think anyone truly understands.

placid3I might recommend this movie for the sake of nostalgia, because there are some ok bits here and there in the film. The characters and writing is generally just so awful though that it is difficult to sit through any sequences in which a crocodile isn’t actively attacking something. Luckily, the movie doesn’t bother with the human element too much, so you might be able to bear it. (speaking of bears…)

 

Plotopsy Podcast #8 – Small Soldiers

Small Soldiers
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Recently, I read a book recounting the story of the early days of DreamWorks, called “The Men Who Would Be King” by Nicole LaPorte. The book features extensive insight into the many DreamWorks features produced during the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen years of the company. One of the most interesting of these that I specifically recounted from my childhood was “Small Soldiers,” a movie that I really enjoyed at the time it was released. However, it was a critical and financial disappointment for the company, despite being technically successful. To understand why the film was so poorly received and regarded at the time, there is a fair amount of background information worth reading into.

“Small Soldiers” was conceived from an interesting mix of envy and greed. Pixar and Disney released the smash hit “Toy Story” in 1995 to massive acclaim and fortune not only on screen, but also from lucrative toy and merchandise tie-ins. In response, the team at DreamWorks struck up a deal with Hasbro to do tie-in toy merchandise for a series of films. DreamWorks notably had a historical axe to grind with Disney, due to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s rocky relationship with Michael Eisner, and the fact that many animators at DreamWorks were poached from the great mouse. Topping “Toy Story” would have been nothing short of a major triumph and vindication for the company. And so, “Small Soldiers” was the first of these Hasbro tie-in features released, and the expectation of it was to match or surpass the “Toy Story” acclaim and fortune earned for Disney and Pixar.

In a recent review of “Small Soldiers” by Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic), numerous similarities to “Toy Story” are specifically pointed out from the movie, and they are pretty undeniable. However, “Small Soldiers” is definitely a very different beast than the lofty and light-hearted “Toy Story”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those sequences were the result of not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the DreamWorks brass.

Joe Dante, a B-movie and cult director who had seen success with movies like “Gremlins,” “Piranha,” and “The Burbs,” was attached to direct “Small Soldiers.” In retrospect, this was probably a misstep for a film that was intended to primarily to serve a youth audience. Even “Gremlins,” arguably his most family friendly movie at the time, is a good deal darker than your typical blockbuster family fare. It can certainly be said that the darkly comedic ultimate product of “Small Soldiers” is a creation born from Joe Dante’s influence.

A number of writers ultimately worked on the script for “Small Soldiers.” First, the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had struck big for Katzenberg on “Aladdin,” worked on the film. Those two continued to work for DreamWorks on a number of other films, including “The Road to El Dorado” and “Shrek,” before working extensively on the “Pirates of the Carribbean” franchise for Disney. The other writers who later worked on the screenplay included Adam Rifkin, who penned the hit “Mouse Hunt” for DreamWorks in the previous year, and Gavin Scott, who co-wrote “The Borrowers” in 1997 for Working Title.

On May 21, 1998, less than two months before the release of “Small Soldiers” in theaters, an expelled High School student named Kip Kinkel murdered his parents and committed a school shooting in Springfield, Oregon. This sparked a lot of public conversation about the marketing of violence to children, and some believe that this event caused the film to be more harshly criticized than it might have been otherwise.

Not helping the matter, the final product of “Small Soldiers” was far more violent than expected: promotional materials even had to be altered (most notably the poster, in which a gun was reportedly digitally removed from Chip Hazard’s hand). The movie was ultimately slapped with a PG-13 (the only DreamWorks movie to get the rating), which caused a stir given it was being marketed with the Burger King equivalent of a Happy Meal. This also theoretically limited its financial potential by keeping young children out of the theaters, which certainly didn’t go over well with DreamWorks. This also understandably further opened up a lot of questions about violent products being catered to children, which almost certainly negatively affected many reviews of the movie.

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“Small Soldiers” has a deep cast of comedic character actors that provide a lot of the comic power of the film, including David Cross, Jay Mohr, and Dennis Leary. However, it is undoubtedly not a product suitable for young children, not only because of the violence, but because the humor is rather dark and laced with social satire that they couldn’t possibly get. The PG-13 rating is certainly justified, in any case. The movie’s cast also notably features a pre-fame Kirsten Dunst, and, sadly, the last screen performance of Phil Hartman.

small3Phil Hartman, beloved comedic actor of “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Groundlings” comedy troupe fame, has a bit role in “Small Soldiers” as the moronic father of Kirsten Dunst’s character. Tragically, Hartman was murdered by his wife just before the release of “Small Soldiers,” making it his last live action theatrical role.

small5A number of references to Joe Dante’s movie “Gremlins” are hidden throughout the movie (including a direct reference to the Gremlin ‘Gizmo’), as well as numerous nods to classic B-movies. Dante got his start in film cutting B-movie trailers for Roger Corman, and has maintained his connection to B cinema to this day. His website, Trailers From Hell, is essentially a love letter to the old school B classics, featuring trailer commentaries from lauded B-movie writers, directors, and special effects masters such as Stuart Gordon, Eli Roth, Rick Baker, Lloyd Kaufman, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and himself.

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The special effects and designs for the action figures in “Small Soldiers” were done by legendary creature creator Stan Winston, and includes a mixture of practical and computer generated effects. This same technique earned Winston massive acclaim on “Jurassic Park” only a handful of years before. The figures themselves are particularly impressive, as you can see on display below:

The voice acting cast of “Small Soldiers” is incredibly deep, and features a rogues gallery of notables. Outside of Tommy Lee Jones, there are a number of alums from “The Dirty Dozen” that make up the Gi Joe esque Commando Elite, including George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The Gorgonites feature voices from Frank Langella, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Even the Barbie analogues impressed into service by the Commando Elite late in the film feature the voices of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

“Small Soldiers” was created during a time in which DreamWorks functioned as a massive multimedia company, with interest in film, video games, animation, and music. Appropriately, DreamWorks attempted to milk every last drop from films released during this time period, and “Small Soldiers” was no exception. The film got a soundtrack that featured rap remixes of classic rock songs, a DreamWorks video game, and a slew of tie-in toys from the DreamWorks arrangement with Hasbro. In theory, “Small Soldiers” was intended to be a family movie with massive crossover potential that would provide proof of the DreamWorks multi-media model. Of course, that isn’t what it wound up being, to the disappointment of many.

So, why was “Small Soldiers” such a disappointment? Honestly, I think that the hands-off style of DreamWorks, which operated its live action with a “power to the artists” mentality reminiscent of United Artists, really burned them with “Small Soldiers.” I don’t think that the marketing team and the brass in general quite grasped the dark creature that was being created with “Small Soldiers”, or maybe they were just incapable of reigning it in for whatever reason. If DreamWorks had it set in their mind that they wanted a “Toy Story”, they probably should have hit the panic button the minute that military-grade microchips and hostage situations popped into a draft of the script. Also, there probably should have been more thought put into giving the film to a guy known for creating dark genre movies in Joe Dante. Secondarily, part of the issue with the film was just timing: releasing on the heels of a school shooting was something outside of their control, and didn’t do them any favors in the press or with critics.

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Now, this is a case where I actually like “Small Soldiers.” I think it is a pretty enjoyable dark comedy in the vein of “The Burbs” if you can divorce it from its context. The “Toy Story” connection, the extensive and inappropriate marketing campaign, and the general social atmosphere around the film all really contributed to the generally negative reception movie if you ask me. I would recommend giving it another shot if someone hasn’t seen it in a number of years: I think it holds up pretty damn well, and is far more clever than it has any business being.

That is all for today’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Check in next week when I’ll be covering another DreamWorks flick, Sam Mendes’s “Road to Perdition.” Make sure to like Misan[trope]y Movie Blog on Facebook and subscribe to the (Plot)opsy Podcast on iTunes to keep up with all of the latest updates.