Tag Archives: worst movies



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deadly Prey

Deadly Prey

Today, I’m going to look at a true classic among bad action movies: 1987’s Deadly Prey.

The plot of Deadly Prey, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A group of sadistic mercenaries kidnap people off the streets and set them loose on the grounds of their secret camp, so the “students” at the camp can learn how to track down and kill their prey.

Deadly Prey was written and directed by David A. Prior, who made a huge number of cheap b-movies from the early 1980s up until his death in 2015. His works include Deadliest Prey, Invasion Force, Raw Nerve, Night Trap, White Fury, and Killer Workout, among countless others.

The central cast of Deadly Prey is made up of the writer/director’s brother Ted Prior (Killer Workout, Surf Nazis Must Die), Troy Donahue (Dr. Alien, Cry-Baby, Godfather Part II), and Cameron Mitchell (Hollywood Cop, Space Mutiny, The Swarm).

The cinematographer for Deadly Prey was Stephen Ashley Blake, who also shot the Frank Stallone movie Order of the Eagle, Hack-O-Lantern, numerous episodes of America’s Most Wanted, and LL Cool J’s music video for “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Due to the underground cult popularity of the film, in November of 2013, a remake/sequel was released by much of the same cast and crew as the original, titled Deadliest Prey.

Much of the attention that Deadly Prey has earned over the years has come through word of mouth, as well as spotlights on internet b-movie review shows like RedLetterMedia’s Best of the Worst and Everything Is Terrible, which have all roundly praised the film for its cheesiness.

Currently, Deadly Prey holds an IMDb user rating of 5.8/10, alongside a 58% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, as with many good-bad movies, it is hard to tell how many votes were cast with sarcasm, so the scores should be taken with a grain of salt.

Deadly Prey is, through and through, the perfect example of a low-budget 1980s action movie. There are plenty of elements lifted from better-known action films like First Blood, lots of goofy action shots that make little-to-no logical sense, gratuitous, brutal violence at every turn, and a plethora of terrible one-liners delivered by sub-par actors (at lease one of them clad in only jorts).  This is a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly predictable exercise in 1980s action that gleefully follows just about every trope and pattern of the genre that you can imagine (despite the downer ending). There’s not much more to say than that: this movie is a complete blast for b-movie fans.

While awareness of Deadly Prey has been steadily growing over the years, I dare say that still not enough people know about it, or have had the pleasure of seeing it.  If you are one of the many who haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and add it onto your queue. This is a rare movie that I can easily recommend to casual viewers as well: I’m confident that most would find something to enjoy with this cheeseball.


Ivy On Celluloid: Dead Man On Campus

Dead Man On Campus

[CN: Suicide]

In this installment of Ivy On Celluloid, the series where I examine movies about higher education, I’m going to take a look at the tone-deaf 1998 suicide-centered comedy, Dead Man On Campus.

The plot of Dead Man On Campus is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.

The screenplay for Dead Man On Campus is credited to Mike White (The Emoji Movie, School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County) and Michael Traeger (The Amateurs).

Dead Man On Campus was directed by Alan Cohn, whose other credits include directing a handful of episodes of The Man Show, and composing the theme music for The Wayans Bros.

The cast of the movie includes Tom Everett Scott (Boiler Room, That Thing You Do), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue), Poppy Montgomery (Without A Trace, Unforgettable), Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale, White Chicks, Unforgiven), Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, How I Met Your Mother), and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man).

The cinematographer for the film was John Thomas, who has shot movies like Sex & The City and Sex & The City 2, as well as television series like Gossip Girl, The Big C, Conviction, Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, and Sex & The City.

The editor for Dead Man On Campus was Debra Chiate, who also cut Movie 43, The House Bunny, Never Been Kissed, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too, among others.

The musical score for the film was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, whose other credits include The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Fanboys, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sorority Boys.

Interestingly, Dead Man On Campus follows a similar plot and premise to another movie from the same year: The Curve, starring Matthew Lillard. However, that movie is a thriller: a more fitting genre for the premise than comedy.

Dead Man On Campus was made on a production budget of $14 million, and was the third theatrical release by MTV films (Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass: The Movie). However, it brought in just over $15 million in its lifetime theatrical run, barely covering the production budget, and almost certainly failing to turn a profit. The critical reception wasn’t any better: it currently holds a 6.1/10 user rating on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% critics and 55% audiences. The Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “disgusting in its ultimate endorsement of conning your way into academic survival,” and The AV Club noted that “it comes off as more ghoulish than anything else.”

Personally, I can’t help but side with the critics here: Dead Man On Campus is as mean-spirited as it is alarmingly unfunny.  The characters are outlandishly cruel in their disregard for human life, and the jokes are stoner-grade, lazy attempts at humor when they aren’t punching down at the mentally ill. All of that said, there are some elements of the film that interestingly relate to higher education.

First off, the school that serves as the setting for the film, Daleman College, is entirely fictitious. A couple of universities were used as filming locations to create the institution, however: University of the Pacific and the University of Southern California.

The impetus for the film’s plot is an old higher education urban legend: it claims that, if one’s roommate commits suicide, then the student is granted straight A’s for the semester to cope with the grief. I’m not sure exactly where this idea came from, but, per Snopes, “no college or university in the United States has a policy awarding a 4.0 average (or anything else) to a student whose roommate dies.” To add to that, if any policy did theoretically exist, it would almost certainly vary institution to institution.

While the urban legend may not be true, I was able to dig up a Purdue University study that corroborates the foundational assumption behind the policy: that grief impacts students’ academic performance.

College students who experience the death of a family member or friends also experience a corresponding drop in academic performance during the semester the loss takes place.

– Servaty-Seib, H. L. & Hamilton, L. A. (2006)

An example of a policy that does exist, however, is described as follows (from a Columbia University source):

While a person’s grades will not automatically be changed, most colleges and universities provide some type of emotional and academic support to roommates, including extensions on due dates, make-up exams, and time off without penalty.

On the same note, I also managed to dig up a blog post from The New York Times blog The Choice, which collected a series of comments from former students who dealt with the death of a parent while in college. While this is a different scenario than the one in this movie, these accounts are far more reflective of how your typical university deals with student grief. Here is abridged version of one of the comments:

I will never forget the kindness and consideration that Mount Holyoke College showed me. From getting me on the plane to keeping in touch with me while I was home sitting shivah, they could not have been more compassionate…Each of my faculty members hand-wrote a note of condolence to my mother and me, expressing sympathy and telling me to take as long as I needed in coming back and picking up the responsibilities of my studies…I was able to return promptly and finish the semester with high grades and renewed respect for my college. Forty years later, I still remember.

All of this taken into account, this is an urban legend that is strangely persistent. The Chronicle of Higher Education has referred to it as “one of the most persistent and morbid rumors on college campuses.” I’ve read accounts of it showing up as a matter-of-fact in television shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: NY. It is honestly alarming how pervasive this potentially harmful misconception is, to the point that it is just assumed to be true by many.

Getting off of the grim topic of suicide for a moment, I want to address one of the other major focal points of the film: the character Cooper’s most prized possession, a six foot tall bong. Now, I am not what you would describe as a marijuana enthusiast, so I wasn’t sure if this was simply a gag prop, or a practical smoking utensil. As it turns out, if you have about $60, the website smokea.com can hook you up with a six foot bong: the Headway Big Boy.  Per the description, “Headway Acrylics has been a leading manufacturer of high quality acrylic water pipes for nearly 20 years” which places its founding roughly around the time of filming for Dead Man On Campus. I suppose that means that the bong prop in the film is plausibly one of their creations?

During an early sequence in Dead Man On Campus, a professor is shown gleefully assigning one of his classes a textbook that he wrote himself. This is, in truth, a very common practice throughout many disciplines. Slate.com featured an article that said the following of professors who assign their own texts:

If your professor requires you to buy his or her own books as course textbooks at full sticker price, get out now…Heed this simple warning, and you are almost certain to avoid your institution’s most pompous, self-serving twits…assigning one’s own work is an eye-roll-inducing ego stroke.

In response to this popular perception of unethical behavior, in 2004, the American Association of University Professors released a statement which generally defended the practice. However, in that same statement, the AAUP cited a handful of standing school policies intended to curb the practice, which is an interesting read:

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, materials written by faculty members and intended for purchase by students may not be assigned unless their use is first approved by the appropriate departmental, collegiate, and university-level committees. Faculty members at the University of Minnesota cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” to students without authorization of the department chair. At Southern Utah University, a department chair and dean must approve the assignment of faculty-authored materials. Approval by a faculty committee is required at Cleveland State University. Faculty at North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas can assign their own works but are cautioned against retaining profits earned from sales to their students unless, as the North Dakota policy states, “the text has become independently accepted in the field.”

There is a thoughtful post on the ethics of professors selling their own textbooks on PsychologyToday.com which I found to be more than worth the read as well, which comes to a similar conclusion as the AAUP:

I’ve encountered lots of people—students, friends, colleagues, and publishing professionals—who think it’s automatically a conflict of interest for professors to assign their own books. But is it an unethical conflict of interest?…No. Not under most circumstances. Assigning one’s own textbook…is, on the face of it, ethical.

In Dead Man On Campus, the character Josh is shown taking a unique degree program: a six-year combined undergraduate degree and Doctorate of Medicine. I was able to dig up a list from November of 2017 of combined BA/BS/MD programs, of which the following schools reportedly offer a six-year program that high school seniors can apply directly to:

University of Texas Southwestern
Northeast Ohio Medical University
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Sidney Kimmel Medical College
Howard University
California Northstate University

Getting back to the light and cheery topic of higher education and suicide, Dead Man On Campus‘s lead character of Josh is shown as being held to impossibly high standards by his parents. To paraphrase his mother: “you always exceed my expectations. And I expect straight A’s!” In 2015, The New York Times ran an article titled “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection”, the introduction of which reads almost exactly like Josh’s first act in Dead Man On Campus:

Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class.

Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down…In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled…surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt…Classmates seemed to have it all together.

The article lays some of the blame for perfectionism on college students’ parents, quoting that “children deserve to be strengthened, not strangled, by the fierceness of a parent’s love.” In the context of Dead Man On Campus, it is an interesting note: by the end of the film, Josh is apparently on the verge of suicide due to his failing to meet the academic expectations of his parents, peers, and professors.

At one point early in the film, it is stated that suicides are a common occurrence on the local college campus, to the point that it is just assumed that at least a few students will kill themselves by the time the semester’s final exams roll around. Unfortunately, suicides are, in fact, tragically common at college campuses. The aforementioned New York Times article notes a preceding academic year that saw 4 suicides at Tulane University, 3 at Appalachian State University, and 6 at the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health has reported that 25.5% of college students had “purposely injured themselves,” and that 9.3% of college students had made a suicide attempt in the 2015-2016 school year.

In the story of Dead Man On Campus, Daleman College has launched a campus suicide hotline to help deal with the outbreak of suicides on the campus. While I didn’t find any examples of an identical program in use on a college campus, many colleges are making innovative strides in dealing with the tragedy of student suicides. Ohio State University offers training courses to faculty and students on how to spot warning signs, and how to intervene or approach at-risk students. Vanderbilt University offers a joint program  through its Psychological Counseling Center and Center For Student Wellbeing aimed at suicide prevention and mental health awareness on campus. Cornell University launched a video project, where school leaders spoke of their own struggles with mental health, which were shared with students during orientation.

Once again, there are plenty more higher education topics worth discussing in Dead Man On Campus: homophobia, Greek organization party culture, and the popularity of recreational use of prescription drugs by college students, to name a few. However, there are plenty of other higher education movies out there for me to cover those topics in: just stay tuned.

Overall, I consider it a tasteless travesty that Dead Man On Campus ever made it to the screen, and I believe it belongs (at best) in the realm of obscurity where it currently resides. It certainly isn’t worth seeking out: black comedy fans and college stoner comedy fans can both equally easily find better than this without having to dig so far down.

For this entry, given the topics covered, I wanted to conclude with some resources for anyone who feels that they need them.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Institute of Mental Health | Suicide Prevention



My Bloody Valentine (2009)

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Today, I’m going to look at the 2009 3D remake of the 1981 horror movie, My Bloody Valentine.

The plot of My Bloody Valentine is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Tom returns to his hometown on the tenth anniversary of the Valentine’s night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. Instead of a homecoming, Tom finds himself suspected of committing the murders, and it seems like his old flame is the only one that believes he’s innocent.

The cast of My Bloody Valentine includes Tom Atkins (Maniac Cop, The Fog, Halloween III), Jensen Ackles (Supernatural), Jaime King (Pearl Harbor, Sin City), Kerr Smith (Final Destination, Dawson’s Creek), Edi Gathegi (Gone Baby Gone, X-Men: First Class), Kevin Tighe (Rose Red, Newsies, K-9, Another 48 Hours), and Megan Boone (The Blacklist).

The screenplay for the film is credited to Todd Farmer (Drive Angry, Jason X) and Zane Smith, the latter of whom has no other listed credits on IMDb. Additional credits are given to the writers of the original 1981 screenplay: John Beaird and Stephen Miller.

My Bloody Valentine was directed and co-edited by Patrick Lussier, who also directed Dracula 2000, The Prophecy 3, White Noise 2, and Drive Angry, and cut such films as Scream, Vampire In Brooklyn, Mimic, Scream 2, Scream 3, New Nightmare, and Red Eye.

Lussier’s co-editor for the film was Cynthia Ludwig, who served as an assistant editor on Carnosaur 3, Rush Hour 2, Scary Movie 2, and numerous episodes of Mr. Robot, Warehouse 13, and Justified.

The cinematographer for My Bloody Valentine was Brian Pearson, whose other credits include Into the Storm, Final Destination 5, Step Up All In, American Mary, and Drive Angry.

The musical score for the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, who also provided music for the films Drive Angry, Piranha 3D, Punisher: War Zone, and From Justin To Kelly.

My Bloody Valentine is distinctive in that it was one of the earliest films in the modern 3D gimmick boom, and was even the first R-rated movie to use the modern 3D “RealD” technology. Part of the movie’s eventual financial success can almost certainly be attributed to the novelty of the technology at the time.

Interesting, there is a notable change in this remake from the ending of the original My Bloody Valentine – the killer’s identity is swapped, possibly to deliver a surprise to audience members familiar with the original film.

My Bloody Valentine was made on a production budget of $15 million, on which it took in a lifetime international theatrical gross of $100.7 million, making it hugely profitable. However, it didn’t fare as well critically: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 57% from critics and 44% from audiences.

In my opinion, the biggest issues with My Bloody Valentine are the central performances. Outside of a couple of stalwart character actors, the burden of the movie falls on a weak central cast of television actors who don’t seem equipped to bear the weight. The nature of this story relies on central characters that the audience can identity and empathize with, but in this case, they are all paper thin and far from realistic in their language and demeanor.

It is to the point that I am curious if there was director influence in the matter: did Lussier want the actors to put in shitty performances, for the sake of homage to the golden age of slashers? In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen notes that “the filmmakers have created something too authentic in spirit to the original film, as it also fairly quickly becomes a plodding chore to watch.” Other reviewers have noted the film’s adherence to “old school slasher rules,” and its general appeal to horror genre fans in particular. I think it may be too easy to say that the movie is “bad on purpose,” but I think there was some consideration of the genre’s traditional expectations and norms incorporated into the casting, directing, and writing of the movie.

Next to the less-than-ideal central performances, the biggest issue with My Bloody Valentine are the 3D effects. Frankly, they have aged incredibly poorly less than a decade after the film’s release, to the point that they look amateurish and cartoon-like now. Unfortunately, this is the nature of computer-heavy digital effects in a marketplace that sees constant technological development and improvement: the effects age very quickly as the standards rise. That said, the effects were the primary selling point for the film to begin with, and the 3D gimmick is what brought people to the theaters and made the movie money. Essentially, the movie wouldn’t exist without them. So, it is probably a fair trade-off that the movie lacks longevity because of the effects, given the effects gave it life to begin with.

Overall, My Bloody Valentine has the right spirit of wanting to be a throwback horror film, but it is significantly hindered by the modern 3D gimmick, and it is harder to watch now because of it than it should be. Despite the glory of Tom Atkins being present, too many other movies have done this same sort of concept better. That said, this is still one of the better and more watchable horror reboots of the 2000s, and is a fun enough ride for genre fans.


Worst of 2017: Monster Trucks

Monster Trucks

Concluding my spotlight on some of the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at Monster Trucks, one of the financial flops that kicked off the year back in January.

The plot of Monster Trucks is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young man working at a small town junkyard discovers and befriends a creature which feeds on oil being sought by a fracking company.

The screenplay for Monster Trucks was written by Derek Connolly, who also penned screenplays for movies like Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Kong: Skull Island.

Monster Trucks was directed by Chris Wedge, who has primarily worked on family-friendly animated features like Robots, Ice Age, and Epic.

The cast of the film is made up of Lucas Till (X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: First Class, MacGyver), Jane Levy (I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911), Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, Battlefield: Earth), Rob Lowe (The West Wing, Parks & Recreation), Danny Glover (Predator 2, Saw, Lethal Weapon), Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone, Bridge of Spies), and Frank Whaley (Luke Cage, Pulp Fiction, Swimming With Sharks, Broken Arrow).

The cinematographer on Monster Trucks was Don Burgess, whose credits include some significant critical and financial hits, such as Forrest Gump, Spider-Man, Cast Away, Source Code, Blind Fury, Contact, What Lies Beneath, The Book Of Eli, and Flight.

The credited editor for Monster Trucks was Conrad Buff IV, whose list of film credits includes the likes of Titanic, The Last Airbender,  The Abyss, Training Day, The Happening, Species, True Lies, Spaceballs, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The musical score for the film was composed by David Sardy, who also worked on the movies Zombieland, 21, End of Watch, Sabotage, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Reportedly, five outwardly-identical green Dodge trucks were built for the movie to play Creature’s automotive shell. One, with its engine in the pickup bed, could be driven from a position under the hood, so that the stunt driver wouldn’t need to be digitally removed from the cab.

Monster Trucks was originally produced by Nickelodeon Movies. However, as the budget spun out of control, they left the project during post-production. Ultimately, they re-joined the film prior to its release, and are given a production company credit.

According to some second-hand reports I’ve heard, the crew responsible for the driving stunts in Monster Trucks had no idea that there were going to be CGI monsters added to their work, or that the production was a kids movie: they apparently assumed that it was going to be an action movie with elaborate truck stunts.

Monster Trucks was struck with multiple release delays, due to the extensive work needed in post-production. Depending on the source, the movie is qualified as either a 2017 or 2016 film, though it officially hit theaters in January of 2017. However, it was originally set for release on May 29, 2015, making its total release delay over a year and a half.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Monster Trucks is how it wound up getting a green light in the first place. It seems beyond belief that such an odd concept would get approved with such a high potential price tag: it just doesn’t make business sense. Reportedly, it was a pet project of former Paramount head Adam Goodman, who was let go before the film came to completion (likely in part due to its disastrously expensive production). However, the real interesting tidbit about his involvement is that the story of Monster Trucks was reportedly based on a pitch from his four-year-old son, which has led to the film being additionally ridiculed.

The final production budget for Monster Trucks was put on the books at $125 million. In its lifetime theatrical release, it managed to take in a gross of roughly $65 million worldwide, making it a massive financial failure.

In accordance with its financial failure, Monster Trucks did not fare well with either critics or the audience at large. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.7/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 53% from audiences. Scott Meslow of GQ described it as “a movie so bizarre, wrong-headed, and obviously destined for failure that it practically demands further exploration.” 

It is worth noting right off the bat that the biggest reason that Monster Trucks entered the public consciousness was on the basis of its bloated budget. Basically, this movie was guaranteed to fail from the minute it started getting press coverage, and was already being predicted as one of the worst movies of the year back in January. In his Rolling Stone review of the movie, Peter Travers even mentions that the primary production company, Paramount, had already chalked it up as a loss before it even hit theaters:

Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, took a $115 million write-down against anticipated losses before it even opened. It’s like having your parents write off your college tuition because they know you’ll never amount to shit.Talk about lack of faith.

However, just because a movie is a flop, or has an outlandish concept, doesn’t mean that the film’s overall quality is necessarily bad. In the case of Monster Trucks, the film’s advance reputation, due to both its bizarre conceptualization and swollen budget, may have poisoned the well in regards to its public reception.

The movie is by no means a classic, but it does have some notable redeeming qualities. The first and biggest one, to my surprise, was the monster itself: “Creech.” I expected the CGI to look jarring and immediately dated, but to my shock, it works a lot better than I expected it to, and he blends pretty well into his surroundings. Creech is also interestingly designed with a handful of juxtaposed natural elements to be simultaneously familiar, sympathetic, and alien. Part shark, part squid, part whale, and part adorable puppy, it is an interesting beast that was clearly the result of a lot of work, and it definitely could have come out of the design phase a lot worse.

As far as other positives go, the supporting cast is surprising deep and entertaining. Rob Lowe is a blast as he channels an approximation of George W. Bush as an oil tycoon, Danny Glover is always nice to see on screen (even in a very limited role), and Thomas Lennon provides some of the better comedic moments as an ethically-compromised scientist working for a soulless oil company.

All of those positives considered, there are still some big issues with Monster Trucks.  For the most part, most of the issues boil down to the screenplay. The writing, particularly when it comes to the dialogue and characters, is sub-par, and the comedy is uneven and poorly executed as a result. Most of the characters are thin to the point of caricature, even when they are played well by their actors, which doesn’t help a movie with an already contrived premise that was in dire need of depth to give it some grounding.

The lead of the movie, played by Lucas Till, is one of the few characters who changes over the course of the story, or has any kind of depth. However, even that isn’t completely a positive: his character comes off as an aloof jerk early in the story, during the period where the audience should be identifying with him and getting on his side. While he does warm as the story progresses (particularly to his love interest), his earlier disposition is never justified or apologized for, and makes him a hard character to pull for.

Overall, Monster Trucks isn’t as bad as its reputation indicates. It is a deeply flawed movie, but it has enough positives to keep it from ever being completely boring. All considered, it is probably on par with an average children’s movie. That said, this isn’t a movie that is easy to see in a vacuum from its context: the stories surrounding its budget, production, and conception are hard to avoid, and inevitably color the film.

When it comes to a recommendation, I don’t think this is a movie that needs to be sought out by bad movie fans, because it just isn’t all that bad. At the same time, it isn’t good enough to recommend to general audiences. The stories surrounding the movies are more interesting than the movie itself, so I do recommend reading up on it, but watching it is something I would consider totally optional.

Worst of 2017: The Circle

The Circle

Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

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

A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity.

The Circle was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, whose other film credits include The Spectacular Now, The End of The Tour, and Smashed, as well as a handful of episodes on shows like Master of None, Shameless, and Parenthood.

The film is based on a 2013 book of the same name written by Dave Eggers, an acclaimed writer and publisher who is probably best known for founding McSweeney’s. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, marking one of a handful of times he has written for the screen (Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are).

The impressive cast of The Circle includes the likes of Tom Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia, The Burbs, Dragnet, Forrest Gump, Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers), Emma Watson (Noah, Beauty & The Beast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Don Jon, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dick Tracy, Breakfast of Champions), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Barry, Fast Food Nation), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Aliens, Predator 2, Twister, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Club Dread, True Lies, Apollo 13, A Simple Plan, Next of Kin, Slipstream), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Who, Oculus), Patton Oswalt (MST3K, Odd Thomas, The King of Queens, Big Fan), and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Detroit, Attack The Block).

Two editors are credited for work on The Circle: Lisa Lassek (Serenity, The Cabin In The Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Community, Firefly, The Avengers) and Franklin Peterson (Safety Not Guaranteed, It’s A Disaster, Comet, Mr. Robot).

The cinematographer for the film was Matthew Libatique, whose notable shooting credits include Iron Man, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Chi-Raq, Phone Booth, The Fountain, Pi, and Everything Is Illuminated.

The music for The Circle was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most recognizable and acclaimed film composers working today. His credits include Milk, American Hustle, Mission: Impossible, Spy Kids, Spider-Man, Red Dragon, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Darkman, Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Scrooged, among countless others.

The Circle marks the final film appearance of beloved character actor Bill Paxton, who died just before the film’s release. Sadly, one of his co-stars, Glenne Headley, also passed away in 2017, just after the movie hit theaters.

A handful of last minute reshoots were done in January of 2017 after test audiences cited some issues with the characters. However, the additional footage failed to remedy the grievances, and arguably worsened the issues, which contributed to the film’s poor reception.

Interestingly, the ending of the story for the film is changed from the one present in the original novel. In the book, Mae betrays Ty, and foils his plan to bring down the circle.

The Circle was made on a production budget of $18 million, on which it grossed roughly $34 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Interestingly, it wound up being released straight to Netflix in the UK, due in part to the devastating early reviews, as well as to the lower than expected grosses in its brief American theatrical release.

The Circle premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, just days prior to its theatrical release in the United States, and the negative word spread quickly. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 23% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

In his review for The Atlantic, David Sims describes The Circle as follows:

The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.

As Sims points out, The Circle suffers from a very serious tone problem. While I don’t think it ever becomes an “absurd comedy,” it does vary quite wildly in intensity. There is also certainly a lack of clarity in regards to what the film is trying to say or advocate, which makes the vision and purpose of the whole movie muddy.  If it had been executed as a straight satire, there might have been something interesting to say about corporate identity and the modern surveillance state. However, everything in The Circle is taken to an absurd extreme beyond even remote plausibility, which makes the whole experience feel paper thin. Stretching the suspension of disbelief so far actually undercuts the biting criticisms that the work was trying to make, and the production looks ridiculous for it.

There are more than a few moments where The Circle devolves into the typical “kids these days” griping that every generation loves to levy at their successors (which is surreal in how out of place it is for a movie whose characters are supposed to be analogous to Google or Apple employees). There is also, unsurprisingly, a lack of understanding of technology, and the culture that surrounds it.

At least in my experience, the people who are most up to date with the latest technological advances are also at the forefront of defending net neutrality, and opposing mass surveillance measures. There is a difference between people selectively sharing aspects of their lives on social media and being “fully transparent,” a distinction The Circle doesn’t seem to grasp. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone really wants full transparency through social media: they want to be able to cultivate and cater their image, which is the whole appeal of the platform. There may be more public sharing involved than previous generations could imagine, but it isn’t unlimited sharing – it is deliberate and selective sharing, in order to build an outward persona.

It is a shame that The Circle devolves into an infantile exercise in slippery slope catastrophizing, because there is a seed of an interesting idea underneath all of this: there are things to be said about the modern surveillance culture, as well as how people incorporate brands into their personal identity. Unfortunately, the potentially salient points are all completely buried underneath a thick layer of Luddite ideology here.

Aside from the technological aspects of the film, there are plenty of other flaws worth addressing with The Circle. While the performances are for the most part pretty good (Boyega, Hanks, and Gillan all stand out), the characters are all one-dimensional, and are defined by a single trait or flaw: they don’t even remotely feel like or behave like tangible, realistic people. On top of that, the story of the film is almost completely without structure: instead of having a cogent arc to it, the story is just a sequence of events that happen, with very little connection between them. In an art movie, this technique might work: something like a snapshot of an intriguing life. However, for a movie that is allegedly a drama or a thriller, there needs to be some connection between events to build tension. For the most part, The Circle is just a series of unconnected fictitious TED talks, with brief intermissions. The result is a movie that feels about 20 times longer than it actually is – a dreadfully boring and mind-numbing experience.

The Circle, on the whole, feels like a movie with a rushed screenplay that needed a whole lot more work. For the most part, all of the movie’s critical errors boil down to writing issues: namely the characters, the structure, and the story. For the record, everything else is pretty good: the movie looks decent, has a fair share of good performances, and has an interesting enough premise. However, it is all built on a shoddy foundation, and the movie is a wreck because of it.

As far as a recommendation goes, there isn’t much to see here. Unless you are a tech geek and want to pull your hair out, this is a movie that should never even pop up on your radar. If you are looking for a bad tech movie with a poor understanding of the internet, Hackers and The Net are always there for you.


Worst of 2017: Black Butterfly

Black Butterfly

Today, I’m continuing my tour through a handful of the cinematic failures of 2017 with Black Butterfly, starring Antonio Banderas.

The plot of Black Butterfly is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul’s work and the two men begin a jagged game of one-upmanship that will bring at least one tale to an end.

As mentioned in the above synopsis, the minimal cast of Black Butterfly is headlined by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, Four Rooms, The Mask of Zorro, Spy Kids, The 13th Warrior) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings, The Tudors, Mission Impossible III).

Black Butterfly is, notably, a remake of a 2008 French made-for-television movie called Papillon Noir. The screenplay for this American version was written by Marc Frydman, one of the film’s producers, and Justin Stanley, who had penned a handful of little-seen movies like Beneath Loch Ness, Dusting Cliff 7, and The Shadow Men.

Black Butterfly is the second film by director Brian Goodman, who has spent most of his career as a minor actor in television shows like Aquarius, Chance, Castle, Lost, and 24. His first film was 2008’s What Doesn’t Kill You, which received generally positive to mixed reviews.

The cinematographer for Black Butterfly was José David Montero, whose other credits include Apollo 18, What Happened to Monday?, The Hunter’s Prayer, and Open Grave.

The music for the film was composed by Federico Jusid, who provided scores for films like Neruda, The Hunter’s Prayer, Kidnap, Misconduct, and The Secret In Their Eyes, among others.

The production history for Black Butterfly traces back to 2012, when Nicolas Cage was reportedly set to star. However, as the production delayed, many changes occurred between the film’s conception and release.

Culturally, the image of a black butterfly is widely considered a bad omen. They are not only uncommon, but visually evocative of death and mourning due to their dark coloration. Depending on the mythology and culture, they can represent the souls of the dead, the end of a season, or a coming disaster.

The film features a cameo role by prolific exploitation director Abel Ferrara, who directed movies like King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers, and The Driller Killer, among others.

Black Butterfly was released in May of 2017 to generally negative reviews. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% from critics and 45% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10. I suspect that the film released solely on video on demand services, given that no theatrical or financial information is readily available for it.

Black Butterfly boasts two very good performances from its leads: Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. For most of the movie, the onus of holding the story together is placed entirely on their shoulders, due to a generally lackluster screenplay. Both men manage to turn dialogue that could have easily sounded cringe-inducing into something mildly compelling and suspenseful – at least to a point. Both actors, who have proven themselves capable in the past, are better than this movie, and put in serious effort to elevate it. For all of Black Butterfly‘s faults, the cast is certainly not one of them.

Something that has been noted by many critics is that Black Butterfly feels familiar for audiences acquainted with the thriller genre: movies like Misery or Secret Window immediately come to mind from the synopsis alone. However, what is interesting about Black Butterfly is how it both subverts those genre expectations, as well as plays directly into tired cliches. Typically, a movie either cleverly goes down the first path, or trudges down the second: Black Butterfly straddles both paths, making for a simultaneously confusing, captivating, and frustrating experience. This is further emphasized by the screenplay’s tone, which is developed through a combination of predictable cliched lines, smug insights into the “writing process,” and non sequiturs masquerading as sapience. In the words of Vikrim Murthi of RogerEbert.com:

“Black Butterfly” communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.

By far the defining element of Black Butterfly, for better or for worse, is its cavalcade of twists. Bafflingly, even the marketing for the film relied on its twists, with the poster sporting the tagline of “A Killer Story With A Twist.” Not only does that marketing spoil the fact that there is a twist, but an audience that had seen the poster would spend the whole movie searching for the twist, which would effectively ruin the viewing experience. In any case, whether spoiled by marketing or not, the twists are a net negative when taken together: despite one debatably good one, it is more than cancelled out by a final bad twist at the conclusion, which undoes all of the previous developments of the film. The rapid twists abruptly shifting from cliche, to novel, to cliche again would give any viewer severe whiplash, and make the movie all the more tiresome.

On a technical level, there is some suspect camera work peppered throughout the film, which is likely a result of what I assume was a low budget. A number of shots and angles seem like they were filmed on cell phones awkwardly placed on tripods. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are moments where it is a bit jarring, and it is clear that camera limitations are preventing some necessary coverage. On a positive note, however, the locations are absolutely gorgeous, and provide a stunning backdrop for the story: it is hard for any given shot to not look scenic as a result.

Overall, Black Butterfly is an exemplar of how twists (and an unpolished screenplay) can hurt a film. To be honest, it is not one of the worst movies of 2017, and it was right on the cusp of making my list for the month. However, it is a more interesting failure to cover than something like The Emoji Movie, which was doomed from conception. Black Butterfly squanders real potential, sees a sharp decline in quality internally due to the degrading twists, and is a surreal juxtaposition of positive and negative elements.

As far as a recommendation goes, it is hard for me to say whether this is worth the time. The performances, as mentioned, are good and worth seeing. While the screenplay is tiresome, I think the twists would be interesting for film buffs to both praise and critique. Casual viewers would likely be less interested in this one, and should probably avoid it.