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Swordfish

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Max, Video Central (Columbus, OH)

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Movie:
Swordfish
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Pitch:
“Believe it or not, it isn’t because Halle Berry  is topless in it. I really like John Travolta’s speeches about movies (and how those sequences are shot). The movie also basically gives away the ending early on, but in a way that you don’t realize it, and it still comes off as a twist. I think it is a more clever movie than it gets credit for, and is worth revisiting.”

Background:

Swordfish tells the story of the planning and execution of an elaborate and technologically advanced heist. The protagonist is a notorious hacker, who has just served a 2-year prison sentence. He is roped into the heist by a mysterious mastermind to handle the programming behind the scenes, but is never given the whole story of what the heist will entail. Of course, the plot features a number of twists and misdirections, and a hearty quantity of explosions.

Swordfish was written and produced by Skip Woods, who has also provided screenplays for Hitman, Sabotage, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, A Good Day to Die Hard, and The A-Team. The director for Swordfish was Dominic Sena, who was also behind such movies as Gone in 60 Seconds, Season of the Witch, and Kalifornia. Likewise, Swordfish was edited by Stephen Rivkin, who has also cut films like Stealth, Avatar, Blackhat, and My Cousin Vinny.

Swordfish required a massive visual effects team due to the complicated nature of a number of the sequences. The team included common elements with films like Avatar, Jingle All The Way, Tank Girl, The Italian Job, Speed, The Abyss, Fight Club, Monkeybone, Minority Report, Judge Dredd, Deep Blue Sea, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Mystery Men, among others.

The music on Swordfish was provided by Paul Oakenfold, an acclaimed DJ who has had remixes featured in movies like The Matrix Reloaded, Collateral, and Shoot ‘Em Up, and Christopher Young, who has composed scores for films like Sinister, Drag Me To Hell, Spider-Man 3, The Core, and Rounders.

The cinematographer for Swordfish was Paul Cameron, who also shot movies like Deja Vu, Man on Fire, Collateral, and the remake of Total Recall.

The cast of Swordfish is pretty deep, and includes the likes of Hugh Jackman (The Prestige, X-Men, Van Helsing), John Travolta (Battlefield: Earth, Face/Off, The Punisher), Halle Berry (Catwoman), Vinnie Jones (The Midnight Meat Train), Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Iron Man 2), Sam Shepard (Stealth, The Right Stuff), and Zach Grenier (Fight Club, Mother Night, Deadwood).

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Swordfish was nominated for a Golden Raspberry award, which are dishonors given out for the judged worst films and performances of the year. Specifically, John Travolta received a nomination for Worst Actor for his work on Swordfish and Domestic Disturbance, but lost out to Tom Green for Freddy Got Fingered.

The reception to Swordfish has been mixed over the years. Rotten Tomatoes, which primarily tracks contemporaneous reviews of movies from critics, has it at 26% aggregate score.  However, IMDb, which tracks reviews continuously from its user base, has it at a significantly higher 6.5 rating.

The budget for Swordfish was estimated to be just north of $100 million. It managed to make a profit on that with a worldwide theatrical gross of just over $147 million, though expectations for it were clearly higher. For comparison’s sake, The Matrix managed to make well over $400 million worldwide on a smaller budget.

Halle Berry reportedly received an extra $500,000 on top of her salary for the movie to do her topless scene, which she apparently agreed to in order to overcome her fear of on-screen nudity.

The opening explosion sequence was, at the time, one of the most complicated visual effects shots in Warner Brothers history. It utilized much of the effects technology that was popularized in The Matrix two years earlier, and required the use of 135 cameras.

Swordfish released just months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and is oddly prescient about some of the issues that would follow the event. Notably, Hugh Jackman’s character is said to have hacked into U.S. government files to sabotage a mass program of illegal surveillance of citizens, a program that actually began occurring after 9/11, and was exposed by Edward Snowden.

Review:

First off, Swordfish features too much color filtering, to the point of being obnoxious. That might not have been too distracting at the time, but after years of CSI television shows beating that particular dead horse, it is impossible not to notice. As with many other aspects of the movie, I’m sure this was done based on the influence of The Matrix, which I’ll get to more in a bit.

This might be a bit of a surprise, but I don’t hate John Travolta in this. I always enjoy his hammy acting, particularly in things like The Punisher and Face/Off. However, the writing for his character is incredibly pretentious and sleazy, which I am sure was at least partially intentional. Regardless, he is really easy to hate, but whether that is a positive or a negative is up to the viewer.

In general, the writing for the movie feels edgy for the sake of being edgy, and gives off a tone of pretending to be cooler than it actually is (not unlike Hackers, a similarly computer-themed flick). Everything about the dialogue just comes off as “trying too hard,” which isn’t a vibe you want your movie to give off.

Just about everything about Swordfish‘s aesthetic and style feels intentionally derivative of The Matrix. I mentioned the use of color already, but the music, costumes, effects, and the prominence of computers/hacking in the story-line all combine to make something that looks and feels a little too familiar. This isn’t necessarily objectively bad, and isn’t as noticeable now unless you look into the context of the film, but at the time, all of these similarities would have stood out in bold to both critics and audiences.

Recommendation:

I have mixed feelings about Swordfish. At times, it is genuinely entertaining and interesting, but at others it is unbearably pretentious and hokey. The excessive vigilante patriotism also came off as weird to me, and just doesn’t line up with the hedonistic personality that Travolta’s character was laid out to have throughout the movie. This trait was apparently emphasized more in rewrites on the movie, which resulted in a handful of alternate endings.

If you like heist movies and can handle sitting through the tech nonsense of Hackers, The Net, and The Matrix sequels, then Swordfish is worth sitting through for the occasional good parts. I still think it is more bad than good, but there is definitely entertainment value to it on the whole.

I particularly recommend checking out the We Hate Movies podcast episode on the film for a more detailed walk-through of the movie, and a few other perspectives on the film as a whole.

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It Follows

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central (Columbus, OH)

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Movie:
It Follows
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Pitch:
“This movie actually got me. Supernatural horror flicks don’t usually freak me out, but this one did. The way it just sort of slowly walks towards you…”

Background:

It Follows was written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, whose only previous feature film was 2010’s The Myth of The American Sleepover, a teen-focused romantic comedy.

The cast for It Follows is made up of a handful of young actors, none of whom have a lot of film experience: Maika Monroe (The Guest), Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto (Beneath), and Kier Gilchrist (United States of Tara) make up the mainstay, with a handful of others filling in depth roles.

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The special effects work for It Follows is credited to Krisz Drouillard, whose most recognizable credit is likely on Kevin Smith’s 2014 foray into body horror, Tusk. The makeup team included Robert Kurtzman (Bubba Ho-Tep, The Faculty, Spawn, Maniac Cop 3, DeepStar Six, From Beyond, Army of Darkness) and Tom Luhtala (Late Phases, John Dies At The End), and the visual effects crew boasted Ed Mendez (Sin City, The Ladykillers, Catwoman, The Road, Spider-Man 3), Alessandro Pepe (Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet), Greg Strasz (2012, White House Down), Raffaele Apuzzo (Nightcrawler), and Andrea Marotti (Getaway, Dracula 3D).

The distinctive and memorable music for It Follows was composed by Rich Vreeland, an electronic and chiptune artist who uses the moniker of ‘Disasterpeace.’ This was his foray into scoring films, though he provided the music for the hit indie video game Fez in 2012, and has a loyal following.

Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis has a long history of shooting short films, but his only other standout feature is the 2012 cult hit John Dies At The End, which was directed by Don Coscarelli, and also featured a number of common effects workers with It Follows.

It Follows received numerous awards and accolades, gaining praise throughout its festival run. nominated for the Audience Award at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, among many others.

It Follows currently holds a rating of 7.0 on IMDb. It also has an astonishing 96% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, though it stands alongside a much lower audience score of 66%.

The film was made on an estimated budget of $2 million, and managed to gross a profitable $17 million in its total theatrical run. However, it was undoubtedly a much bigger critical hit than it was a financial one, and is primarily the darling of critics and horror die-hards.

Review:

I saw this film in theaters, knowing it already had immense acclaim behind it. There is certainly a lot interesting going on in this movie, not the least of which is the fact that it manages to create an effect of unease with both its audio and visual components. I think the score is probably the most distinctive aspect of the movie, and essentially creates something new by delving into something old: the iconic horror scores of John Carpenter. You can tell that the score is a sort of synthesis between Carpenter and the modern electronic drone of Kavinsky, which was popularized in Drive.

Creating ‘new’ out of ‘old’ is more or less the whole gist of the film’s style: the anachronism is even built interestingly into the set design and the background details: characters have modern mobile phones and electronic devices, but all of the televisions are ancient CRTs, the cars are vintage, and the movie theater has a live organist. In many ways, you could argue that we are living in a nostalgia generation, defined by its lust for the past. In that way, It Follows is the perfect encapsulation of our status quo.

I once had a jazz teacher who always gave the advice to his students to listen to and imitate great musicians. “But won’t I start sounding like ‘Bird’?” a student might say. He would respond: “You’ll never sound like Bird. You’ll sound like someone trying to sound like Bird, and that will be you.” It Follows is, as many have pointed out, a mockingbird of John Carpenter, and specifically Halloween. The music, the posture of the creature, the setting, and the shots all function as modernizations of that classic film, arguably more faithfully than the actual reboot of the franchise. However, I don’t think anyone would confuse this movie with a product from John Carpenter himself, in the same way that a saxophone student won’t be mistaken for Charlie Parker. It Follows feels, looks, and sounds like a movie trying to be a John Carpenter movie, and the resulting imitation is something that is both faithful and unique.

When it comes to problems with the movie, I found that the creature lost a lot of its intimidating ability one it was made clear that it was physical and definitively mortal. In general, monsters become less scary as characters discover their weaknesses and boundaries, like sunlight with vampires or silver with werewolves. However, “It” really needed to be unstoppable to be intimidating. Making it susceptible to bullets and electricity took a little too much away from its mystique. I also expected some sort of clever trap for the creature rather than a killing blow, which would have made more sense and kept the monster from losing its edge.

I also wasn’t particularly enthralled with the first kill of the movie, in which a young woman is discovered grotesquely contorted on a beach after fleeing from the creature. The way she was bent around struck me as a bit too comical, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of bendy-straw pretzel-making shenanigans the creature had to go through to get that effect. I imagine it wasn’t unlike making a balloon animal.

Back to a positive: I loved the way this movie used the underlying sexual anxieties of youth as a way to tap into a latent social fear. I think the best horror movies always do that to some degree, and it helps the film get a foot in the door to the viewer’s psyche, which makes it more effective at being genuinely horrific and unsettling. That is one of the biggest shortcomings of most Hollywood horrors made nowadays if you ask me.

Likewise, It Follows is very deliberate and creative in its use of color and light, particularly when it comes to shadows and water. Both the back yard pool and the finale municipal pool are shot in ways that are visually striking, and the blues always find a way to pop against the surroundings. All of the interior shots in the various are kept dark and are shot tightly, giving a distinct sense of claustrophobia and discomfort.

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Recommendation:

I can’t recommend It Follows highly enough. For many horror fans, I think It Follows and The Babadook have served as beacons of hope for the genre, and counterpoints to lazy Hollywood horrors like Ouija and Annabelle. I’m a little surprised that audiences haven’t been more receptive to It Follows on the whole. My guess is that the slow build of tension didn’t work for a lot of general audiences, who aren’t accustomed to atmospheric horror, and are more conditioned for jump scares and a simpler horror formula.

The Brothers Grimm

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central (Columbus, OH)

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Movie:
The Brothers Grimm
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Pitch:
“It almost has a USA series sort of concept. They are the brothers Grimm, but they are con artists. I love the little references to the Grimm tales, and it is just a generally fun movie. Also, it is beautiful, being a Terry Gilliam movie. Critics really didn’t care for it, but I think it is pretty fun, and I enjoyed it when I watched it again recently.”

Background:

“The Brothers Grimm” seems like a winning combination from the start: the Grimm tales are some of the most beloved, dark fairy tales of all time, and here they are put into the hands of one of the most visionary and imaginative directors out there in Terry Gilliam, who specifically specializes in the bleak and strange (“12 Monkeys,” “Brazil”).

grimm1The writer of “Brothers Grimm” is credited as Ehren Kruger, who is probably best known for his involvement in writing a number of the “Transformers” films. He has a number of other credits to his name that predate “Grimm,” such as the Ben Affleck flick “Reindeer Games” and the much-maligned third “Scream” movie. His only particularly well-liked work seems to be “The Ring,” for which he wrote the adapted English screenplay. Interestingly, the writing credit on “Grimm” was the subject of much controversy: Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) apparently extensively re-wrote Kruger’s script, but were denied writing credits by the Writers Guild of America.

The cast of “Grimm” features the late Heath Ledger and Matt Damon as the eponymous Brothers. Outside of them, the cast features Gilliam favorite Jonathan Pryce (“Brazil”), the now-acclaimed Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”), Peter Stormare (“Fargo”), Monica Bellucci (“Irreversible”), Mackenzie Crook (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), and character actor Roger Ashton-Griffiths. Interestingly enough, Headey, Pryce, Crook, and Ashton-Griffiths have all appeared in recent seasons of “Game of Thrones” in an assortment of roles.

grimm3Interestingly, it is reported that Gilliam wanted Johnny Depp for Damon’s role, but Bob Weinstein dissented, claiming that Depp was not commercial enough. Of course, Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” released during the production (2003), changing his status overnight. Stormare’s role was apparently given to Robin Williams initially, but he dropped out before filming.

grimm6Among the producing credits on “The Brothers Grimm” are the notorious Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob. This movie released just as the brothers were fleeing Disney (and their original company of Mirimax) in 2005, for the greener pastures of their new incarnation, The Weinstein Company. Technically, “Grimm” released under Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films label (in cooperation with MGM and Summit due to the budget), though it could be considered one of the first productions of The Weinstein Company.

Unsurprisingly, the Weinsteins clashed significantly with Gilliam over the course of the film’s production. In a 2009 interview, Gilliam had some choice words about the brothers and the ultimate product that is “The Brothers Grimm”:

“…they’re interesting producers, but they are people who are good at those jobs and not at directing movies. And yet they want to be filmmakers. They interfered more than I’ve ever been interfered with before.”

“it’s not the film they wanted and it’s not quite the film I wanted. It’s the film that is a result of two people, or two groups of people, who aren’t working well together.”

As Hannah mentioned, “The Brothers Grimm” was not well-received on release. It currently holds a critic score of 38% and an audience score of 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, a rare case of agreement between the two barometers. However, the IMDb user score is notably higher at a 5.9, which may indicate that the movie has been looked back on more fondly in recent years (though not dramatically). It did manage to make some money on a high budget of an estimated $88 million, but not much. It is really something when a movie can break $100 million total in ticket sales and not make an impressive gross.

Review:

The best aspect of “The Brothers Grimm” is almost unarguably the effects. They are a little dated a decade down the line (the werewolf transformations, particularly), but not excessively so. Visually, the film is really solid all around, with an interesting mix of CG and practical effects. There is also some masterful use of lighting (particularly in a couple of the Mirror Queen sequences), which is to be expected from Terry Gilliam.

You can tell that there are the makings of a good Gilliam movie here, but that it just couldn’t come to fruition. I’m sure Gilliam would blame the Weinsteins’ constrictions for that, but I think that Gilliam’s vision was just too big for the realistic budget: the film almost didn’t get released at all due to the skyrocketing budget of the flick. Of course, the writing wasn’t exactly stellar either, which didn’t give the movie much of a foundation to work with.

The script is pretty shoddy on the dialogue front, to the point that the actors can’t really salvage it. They are still pretty charming and do what they can with the material, but it just isn’t very good. The constant nods to the Grimm Fairy Tales are to be expected, but they come a little too often and a little too blatantly for my taste. It isn’t as bad as “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” or “Van Helsing” by a longshot though, which some have (I think unfairly) drawn parallels to. Probably worst of all though is the fact that the plot just isn’t very interesting or engaging. I loved the initial concept, but the plot’s inane complexities really took me out of it by the third act. I just couldn’t stay invested in the labyrinthine details as the story progressed.

grimm5There is another pretty big problem with this film, and I think it is one that significantly impacted the behind the scenes tensions: this movie is just too long for what it is. I know that one of the fighting points between the Weinsteins and Gilliam was over  the director’s right to final cut (final say on the editing of the movie), and I’m willing to bet the Weinsteins wanted him to tighten it up against his wishes. And you know what? They were right in this case. One of Gilliam’s greatest weaknesses is pacing, and a number of his more recent movies have been criticized for this problem. I don’t think it is as bad here as it has been in some other films of his, but the 2 hours of run-time here feels as long as a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation, and it isn’t nearly entertaining enough to justify it.

Recommendation:

Unless you are a die hard fan of the Grimm Fairy Tales, or are a Terry Gilliam completest, I think “The Brothers Grimm” is pretty skippable. It has some good moments, and I don’t think it is as bad as the critics treated it on release, but I found it to be a mediocre film overall. Gilliam is capable of a whole lot better, and it is hard to divorce the ultimate product of this movie from the incredible potential it had.

Hesher

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Max, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
Hesher
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Pitch:
“It is like ‘Metalocalypse’ meets ‘Mary Poppins.’ It is probably my favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt role: he plays a stoner asshole, but he manages to help the other characters get over the loss of their wife/mother.”

Background:

Spencer Susser, co-writer, editor, and director of “Hesher,” doesn’t have a whole lot of credits to his name to delve into. For the most part, he has only created a handful of short films over the years since 1999, perhaps most notably the mockumentary “R2-D2: Beneath the Dome.” “Hesher” remains his only full-length feature, and his only notable work recently is directing a 2014 episode of the Netflix series “Hemlock Grove.”

The writing team behind “Hesher,” outside of Susser, consists of writer/director David Michod (who has gained acclaim for his recent films “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover”) and a guy named Brian Charles Frank, who at the time had no other credits. However, Frank more recently wrote a television show called “Wolfpack of Reseda” for Fox Digital Studios, but doesn’t appear to have anything else in the pipeline.

The cast of “Hesher” not only includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, but also a handful of Hollywood regulars, including Rainn Wilson and Natalie Portman. The movie technically centers on a child character, meaning that there is a lot of pressure put on the lead child actor in Devin Brochu, who has been in movies like “Rubber” and “In the Valley of Elah.” The rest of the cast includes the much-lauded Piper Laurie (“Carrie,” “Twin Peaks,” “The Hustler”), character actor John Carroll Lynch, and another child actor in Brendan Hill.

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Although “Hesher” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it didn’t get much love from critics in general. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 54%, with an average rating of 5.7.  Audiences seem to appreciate the film a bit more, as it holds an IMDb rating of 7.1 and a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 61%.  Still, those aren’t exactly stellar numbers.

The character of Hesher is reportedly based on Metallica bassist Cliff Burton: a long-haired, hard-partying musician who was killed in a bus crash in 1986. Appropriately, the soundtrack of “Hesher” includes a number of Metallica tracks that feature Burton.

Review:

Much like another movie I recently reviewed, “House of Yes,” “Hesher” is fairly dependent on one character. Unsurprisingly, that character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s title role of “Hesher.” Almost everything that happens in the film is somehow catalyzed by Hesher, or is done in reaction to him. However, he is interestingly not the main character: he is just a roving force of destruction that creates the plot in his wake. It probably goes without saying, but JGL is thoroughly impressive in the role.

The actual lead of the film is portrayed by Devin Brochu, whose character is a young child trying to deal with the recent death of his mother and family’s financial hardships (not to mention an obnoxious school bully). For a child performance, it is beyond impressive. It is always a gamble to put a kid in the dramatic center of a serious movie, but in this case it certainly paid off. I hope Brochu sticks around in film, I’m looking forward to seeing him in more things in the future.

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Brochu’s father is played by Rainn Wilson, who is maybe the most under-appreciated dark comedy actor out there today. Though he is best known for his role from the American adaptation of “The Office,” Wilson has been brilliant in movies like James Gunn’s “Super,” and has just recently started a leading role in the dark comedy cop show “Backstrom.” In “Hesher,” his character is a straight foil for JGL, but the intensity and sorrow that Wilson brings to the role is incredibly humanizing for a character that could easily have been dull and forgettable.

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In general, this is a film that is powered by performances. The only real weak spot I noted was Natalie Portman, who doesn’t really have a whole lot to do in the movie: her character doesn’t get the same kind of screen time or opportunities as most of the others, making her more or less just a distant satellite in the story.

Spencer Susser earned a commendation for “Best First Time Director” at the Philadelphia Film Festival for “Hesher,” and I think it is definitely well-merited. The way the film is shot plays a solid role in how the drama plays out, and a number of moments are particularly impressive at building tension. I also really like how the film is lit: the only time anything is brightly lit or colored is during a flashback sequence, which not only makes it stand out, but also emphasizes the dark ambiance of the movie in general. It is subtle enough that you don’t particularly notice it, which basically means it is done well.

I can recommend this one pretty heartily. The performances and direction are really solid, and I definitely don’t see eye-to-eye with the critical detractors on this one. A number of the complaints I saw cited issues with the narrative flow and with the general vulgarity of the movie, and more specifically with the lack of likeability in the character of Hesher. While the plot is slow, I don’t see  how the vulgarity or unlikeability of Hesher is a weakness to the film: it is kind of essential to it. “Hesher” is a quirky indie movie to be sure, and it is definitely rough around the edges, but there is enough good going on in this movie to forgive some of the indie stereotypes it holds to. It is by no means a great movie, but it is definitely in the realm of “good.”

 

 

It’s A Disaster

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Brock, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
It’s A Disaster
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Pitch:
“A bunch of people are at a dinner party when some sort of biochemical attack occurs, and they all wind up trapped together. They don’t like each other very much, so it doesn’t go very well. David Cross is in it, and it is a definitely worth a watch.”

Background:

“It’s A Disaster” is a dark comedy written and directed by Todd Berger, following a number of contentious couples who are trapped at a brunch by an unfolding chemical disaster.

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Todd Berger

Todd Berger has an assortment of writing, acting, and directing credits for things such as “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters,” and “Southland Tales.” His most acclaimed film apart from “It’s A Disaster” is the only other one on which he has served as writer/director: “The Scenesters,” another dark comedy that he did 3 years prior to “It’s A Disaster.” It is about a serial killer who targets hipsters, and a vigilante plot to stop him. That film won a number of awards at film festivals such as Slamdance and the Phoenix Film Festival, but didn’t get a whole lot of exposure beyond that.

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“It’s a Disaster” has a number of recognizable faces in the cast, such as David Cross (“Arrested Development,” “Mr Show,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”) and America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty,” “End of Watch”). However, the majority of it is made up of members of the comedy troupe The Vacationeers, who specialize in comedic shorts and features (including Todd Berger’s other feature film, “The Scenesters”).

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Reception of “It’s A Disaster” was mixed: despite a number of awards at film festivals (New Orleans Film Festival, Bendfilm Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival), Rotten Tomatoes has it scored at 77%, with a critic’s average rating at 6.3. The audience score is 59% with an average score of 3.4, and the IMDb user rating is 6.5.

The film’s poster, lampooning the historical Kitchener / Uncle Sam recruitment posters, is probably as well regarded, if not better, than the film itself. The image of a man in a hazmat suit with a glass being ominously thrust towards the observer ties in incredibly well with the film’s plot and tone. If that doesn’t get you to watch the film, then it probably isn’t meant for you.

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Review:

“It’s A Disaster” is very heavy for a comedy, even a dark one. It bounces from being a more-or-less lighthearted tale of bickering, cheating couples to incorporating murder plots and contemporary fears of domestic terrorism. It is still good without any doubt, but the tone is far from steady or even.

David Cross, as expected, is fantastic in the film. He is one of the funniest actors out there today in the realm of black comedy, and this film really allows him to show some of the range of what he is capable of. The rest of the roles in the movie are pretty clear-cut, though they definitely all devolve into different shades of panic over the course of the film.

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The writing, particularly for the dialogue, is fantastic. The characters definitely have distinctive voices, and their interactions are always entertaining. In a film with a number of twists, there are also some great subtle hints threaded throughout the film in the dialogue, which is always good to see. That said, the characters become increasingly cartoony and unbelievable as the story moves on, but I think it adds to the surreal feel of the film as a whole, so it isn’t excessively distracting.

When it comes down to whether I can recommend “It’s A Disaster,” it is really a tough call. As I mentioned, this is a really heavy film that deals with a horrifying situation as the plot progresses. The interpersonal humor is all pretty funny for the bulk of the film, but things get exponentially more bleak in the last act. If anyone is a big fan of David Cross (particularly “Todd Margaret”), then this film is a must see. In general, I think anyone who can handle “Todd Margaret” would enjoy this film, as the tones are definitely similar.

Hackers

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Brock, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
Hackers
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Pitch:
“‘Hackers’ made me want to paint my keyboard different colors. This is the future we are going to be living in. I love this movie.”

Background:

“Hackers” is a 1995 movie that has achieved cult classic status, particularly in internet communities, for its hilarious depiction of a group of hackers and their unrealistic use of the internet. The movie provided break out early roles for Angelina Jolie, and to a lesser degree Matthew Lillard.

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“Hackers” director Iain Softley has done very little else of note, with the exception of the Kevin Spacey movie “K-PAX” in 2001 and the movie “The Skeleton Key” starring Kate Hudson in 2005. IMDb lists two movies directed by Softley that have yet to be released: “Curve” and “The Outcast.” Neither film currently has a release date scheduled, however.

The cast is a veritable rogues gallery of notables. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller lead the way, with Fisher Stevens, Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Selma”), Lorraine Bracco (“The Sopranos”), Matthew Lillard (“Scream”, “The Descendants”, “SLC Punk”), and even magician Penn Jillette  and pop singer Marc Anthony filling out the lower rungs of the cast. Miller and Jolie wed soon after the completion of filming, which is a frequent footnote and fun fact attached to the film.

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Perhaps the most telling thing of all about this movie can be gleaned from looking at the writing credit. “Hackers” was penned by one Rafael Moreu, whose only other writing credit is for the much maligned “The Rage: Carrie 2.” Despite the reception of the script, apparently there was a lot of research put into the script by Moreu, some of which shows up on screen. A number of the character pseudonyms are nods to famous hackers and computer engineering icons (“Babbage,” “Emmanuel Goldstein”), and the central supercomputer in the story is named after William Gibson, an acclaimed and influential science fiction author who coined the term “cyberspace.” It is also reported that members of the cast and crew of “Hackers” spent time attending real hacker meetups and conferences while making the movie.

The marketing campaign for “Hackers” included, of course, a website. The design was made in such a way as to give the appearance that it had been hacked by outsiders. This included a number of snarky graffiti messages on top of the promotional materials. One in particular reportedly read “see ‘The Net’ instead,” a reference to the now equally notorious 1995 cyber-thriller starring Sandra Bullock.

Review:

I admittedly had somehow never seen this movie before, but its reputation precedes it. It is regarded nowadays as a classic bad movie, one of a subset of movies about the internet before anyone really understood how it worked (“The Net” gets the honor of being in this category as well).

Honestly, I’m not even sure where to start with this thing. The dialogue? The fashion? The music? Lorraine Bracco? There is a whole lot bad about this movie.

The first and probably biggest issue with “Hackers” is the script, which is a mixture of word salad techno-jargon and cheesy 1990s counterculture idioms. As mentioned in the background of the movie, the writer reportedly spent a fair amount of time around hackers while he was writing and preparing this movie. I can’t help but wonder if the hacker community was playing a lengthy practical joke on the production, intentionally feeding Moreu word salad and bad information. I mean, that certainly sounds like the kind of thing the internet community would do nowadays. In any case, the lines that make it into the movie are often cringe-worthy and nonsensical, something that is emphasized by the fact that most of the cast clearly has no idea what they are talking about.

Speaking of cluelessness in the cast, Lorraine Bracco deserves a specific call out for her performance. Even though her character is supposed to not understand computers in the story, it is clear that she is incredibly out of place in this movie. She doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but her deliveries when she is on screen are just abysmal. She just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cast, and it stands out like caps lock.

Fisher Stevens plays the antagonist in the story, and is probably the most entertaining element in the movie. He goes well over the top in his portrayal of a sold-out master hacker who holds no loyalties and looks down on the world (“The Plague”). His skeevy condescension comes out in every line he speaks, and it is hilarious.

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Wendell Pierce, who is best known for his starring roles in the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme,” plays a secret service agent who is tasked with taking down hackers. He is definitely in a smaller role in “Hackers,” but his ability to integrate comedic timing into serious roles really comes out in this movie.

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“Hackers” was more or less the breakout movie for both Angelina Jolie and Matthew Lillard. It is fascinating to see how different their roles are in this movie, and how they reflect their ultimate career trajectories. Lillard, unsurprisingly, provides comic relief: setting the groundwork for him to eventually show up in countless stoner movies, as well as “Scream” and the “Scooby Doo” live action films as Shaggy. The way he pulls off the cyberpunk fashion in “Hackers” almost certainly contributed to him landing the lead role in “SLC Punk” as well. Jolie, on the other hand, is probably the most even-keel (and bland) character in the film. Admittedly, I am not a fan of Jolie’s acting: I have never seen anything where she shows much range, and she seems to rely on shallow action leads. In that sense, though (having a career based on being a shallow lead), “Hackers” provides as legitimate of a foundation as you could ask for.

Not everything about “Hackers” is bad, though. There are some pretty interesting sets, and there is some intriguing editing here and there. It is also a very colorful movie for better or worse: I thought it worked pretty well personally. There are a number of “cyberspace” sequences that were created through a mix of practical effects and traditional animation that actually look pretty ok (better than if they had dared CG in 1995).

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“Hackers” is a movie I can definitely recommend to computer nerds and bad movie fans as an unintentional comedic masterpiece. To other audiences, I don’t they would appreciate the film as much, but they might still be able to have fun with it. There is a relevant quote from Roger Ebert’s surprisingly positive review of the movie:

The movie is smart and entertaining, then, as long as you don’t take the computer stuff very seriously. I didn’t. I took it approximately as seriously as the archeology in “Indiana Jones.”

I agree that if you turn off your brain, this is a pretty enjoyable movie. It also benefits a bit from the nostalgia factor it has nowadays, but the flip side of the coin is that all of the floppy discs make the movie hilariously archaic.

As a side note, I highly recommend the We Hate Movies episode on “Hackers” for a more in depth look at the plot.

State of Play

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central (Columbus, OH)
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Movie:
State of Play
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Pitch:
“It is an absolutely formulaic thriller movie, but executed really well. Like, somebody had a concept for this movie, and pulled it off exactly as they wanted it. The movie is like a really good hamburger: all of the elements are simple, but it is definitely enjoyable”

Background:

“State of Play” is based on a successful and highly acclaimed six-episode BBC serial of the same name from 2003, which featured notable actors such as James McAvoy, Jon Simm, and Bill Nighy, and David Morrissey (among others).

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The American film adaptation of “State of Play” is directed by Kevin Macdonald, known for acclaimed films such as “The Last King of Scotland” and “Touching the Void.” However, the film is reported to have been passed on by acclaimed directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Brian De Palma, Richard Linklater, Ang Lee, and Edward Zwick.

The casting of “State of Play” was somewhat of a revolving door during pre-production, resulting in a number of delays. Initially, it was intended to be a reuniting of the “Fight Club” duo of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. However, delays from the 2007 writers’ strike led to scheduling conflicts, which inevitably led to more delays and conflicts, ultimately resulting in the two central roles going to Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck after both Norton and Pitt had to back out. The rest of the deep cast features Jeff Daniels prior to his resurgent role in “The Newsroom,” Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, and Robin Wright. However, the all-star American casting was criticized by some media outlets in the UK (most notably The Independent), in particular because none of the brilliant original serial cast were asked to return for the film.

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As mentioned previously, “State of Play” went through extensive re-writes throughout production, passing through a variety of hands. Included among the writing credits are Tony Gilroy of the “Bourne” series and “The Devil’s Advocate,” Matthew Michael Carnahan of “Lions for Lambs,” and “The Kingdom,” and Billy Ray of “Volcano,” “Shattered Glass,” and “Captain Phillips.” Although not ultimately credited, Peter Morgan of “The Queen” was also brought in at one point for rewrites.

“State of Play” features an Academy Award nominated cinematographer in Rodrigo Prieto, who has lofty credits including “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Babel,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Argo,” and “21 Grams.” Elsewhere in the crew is prolific casting director Avy Kaufman, who assembled casts for movies like “Lincoln,” “AI,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Life of Pi” (as well as another Clerk’s Pick: Scotland, PA).

Review:

“State of Play” is a slow-burning movie that incorporates interesting elements from action movies into what is without a doubt a political / journalistic thriller. There are a number of frenetic, tense sequences that feel like they are pulled from a Jason Bourne movie, whereas most of film bears significant similarities to dark, political dramas like “House of Cards.” It makes for a really interesting and tense watch, to say the least.

Director Kevin Mcdonald specifically cites “All the President’s Men” as the primary inspiration for the movie’s direction, and odes to that film and the Watergate scandal are scattered throughout the movie. However, as I mentioned previously, I think “State of Play” feels and looks far more like the recent, lauded American adaptation of “House of Cards” than anything else. This is particularly interesting, given the “State of Play” BBC serial drew a lot of comparisons from critics to the earlier, original 1990 BBC version of “House of Cards”, creating a curious sort of ouroboros between the two properties.

One of the most impressive aspects of this movie, in my opinion, is the stellar performance by Ben Affleck. “State of Play” immediately predates his recent renaissance: the very next year saw the release of his second directorial feature “The Town,” which I credit as the start of his revival into prominence.

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The casting in general for “State of Play” is top notch, and features a number of memorable performances. Outside of Affleck and Crowe, Jason Bateman particularly stood out to me despite having a very small supporting role in the movie. His skeevy character manages to bring a little bit of comic relief into the movie without ruining the tone or distracting from the story, which could easily have happened with someone else in the role.

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The cinematography in “State of Play” is absolutely fantastic. Just as the story splits time between the political world and journalistic world, the shooting styles differ depending on the focus of the scene. Parts that center on Russell Crowe and the journalists resemble the shaky, handheld style that Rodrigo Prieto later used in “Argo”, whereas the political side of the movie is filmed in pristine, well-lit high definition.

“State of Play” is a pretty solid recommendation from me, particularly for anyone who is dying for more “House of Cards.” The pacing is probably too slow for people expecting an action-packed movie, but I think the tension is well built throughout the film. I admittedly would have preferred to see the initially intended Pitt / Norton version of the film, but Crowe / Affleck are definitely on point here.