Even the greatest of auteurs in cinema generally take one or two big missteps in their careers, either early on — as happened to a lot of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls generation of American filmmakers, bringing their hirsute hubris down to earth with a bump — or later, when poor judgement and a degree of fossilisation can cloud a director’s vision — see Quentin Tarantino’s remarks, for example, about not wanting to be a “geriatric” filmmaker, making films deep into his old age because this is when filmmakers generally lose their mojo, or Steven Soderbergh’s early retirement plans, which he hopes will see him exit filmmaking at the top of his game.
The latter factors were at play in Otto Preminger’s “Skidoo,” a wacky ill-conceived project meant to capture the ‘60s counter-culture zeitgeist, that instead, like an embarrassing Dad trying to be hip, possibly demonstrated the early symptoms of senility it was so out of touch. This week finally sees the release of “Skidoo” on DVD — a film that is long-awaited by those who have heard about its legendary awfulness, but haven’t to date had a chance to witness it first-hand. Preminger was, on balance, a wonderful journeyman of a director whose oeuvre we covered last week, but this thing is so hilariously bad, it borders on ironically, hilariously good; if you’re in the mood and have copious amounts of alcohol and some like-minded friends to hand, its sheer, whimsical dreadfulness can turn out to be an absurdist treat.
A film we loathe and perversely love in equal measure (though some may just want to skip the metaphorical masochism and go straight to stabbing their eyes and ears out instead), it got us thinking about other venerable directors’ cinematic indiscretions, missteps, gigantic blunders, and outright colossal failures: from those that threatened to derail hitherto promising careers (and in the cases of people like Peter Bogdanovich or William Friedkin, gaffes serious enough to ensure their careers never fully got back on track), to those that came later in life due to complacency or, in some cases, the failing cerebral functions of old age. Thus, we present to you “When Directors Lose the Plot,” a by-no-means definitive collection of interesting left turns, mistakes and flat-out failures by some of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
“1941” (1979) – Steven Spielberg
“I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie,” reportedly confessed legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg to the New York Times, thereby admitting his film’s failings with honesty and a smidge of regret. But how bad is this 1979 war-comedy, featuring the stacked cast of Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, and many others? That depends on your tolerance for comedies that aren’t funny. Proceedings kick off with a parody of the director’s own “Jaws,” in which a skinny-dipping woman discovers a Japanese submarine lurking in American waters. Then, following a decision to bomb Hollywood (one can almost hear the in-jokey off- camera laughter), the narrative is immediately carved into myriad tiny little stories: Wally (Bobby Di Cicco) would rather dance than fight and hopes to prove himself at an upcoming dance; Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson) pines for the loins every woman he sees; Ward Douglas (Beatty) is forced to house an anti-aircraft millitary weapon; Wild Bill Kelso (Belushi) accidentally blows up a gasoline station… and so on and so forth. The set up is ripe enough for the respective narratives to take on their own tones and beats, but Spielberg shoots them all in his signature style, using as few cuts as he can and moving the camera whenever possible. Unfortunately, nothing ever meshes together, comic timing is seemingly absent, and the filmmaker’s penchant for theatrical set pieces and explosions only makes things worse — we maybe could have accepted the unamusing direction had he not insisted on throwing things in our faces for an alarming 2+ hours. But without berating it too much, the film was only a “flop” in comparison to its preceding films (which would be “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” try to follow that) and it is, by all means, a very competently constructed movie — it’s not like the man had a lapse in skill for a year. Even so, its “cult status” is a little too forgiving (and, at worst, delusional), with most giving props to its lack of sentimentality, in counterpoint to the usual criticism of the director’s gooey-centredness. But we like when Steven makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t we? The Academy-friendly director is welcome to dabble in schmaltz so long as he means it. That said, if he ever again gives us anything as awful as the opening which involves a Japanese-native soldier proclaiming an American woman’s bare-ass to be “Hollywood!!”, we shall devise an appropriately hideous punishment.
“At Long Last Love” (1975) – Peter Bogdonavich
At one point, Peter Bogdanovich looked to be the most bulletproof of the 1970s gang. He followed taut B-movie “Targets” with three back-to-back critical and commercial hits: “The Last Picture Show,” which picked up ten Oscar nominations and launched the careers of Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd (who would become the director’s lover), screwball comedy throwback “What’s Up Doc?,” a giant hit, and “Paper Moon,” a funny, touching Depression-era father-daughter tale. But then things to started to unravel. 1974 brought “Daisy Miller,” an ill-conceived Henry James adaptation with a disastrously miscast Shepherd in the lead role, but that was nothing compared to “At Long Last Love.” Once again paying homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was a full-blown 1930s musical, using a whole series of classic Cole Porter tunes, and getting stars Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd and Madeline Kahn to shoot the numbers live, rather than syncing to playback. Bogdanovich was never a rebel like his 70s compatriots, and that was his undoing; critics loathed the film (particularly singling out Reynolds and Shepherd, with many claiming neither could sing), it tanked at the box office, and until this year, when it was made available on Netflix Streaming, it had barely been seen. In fact, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests: it’s fluff, certainly, but so was “Top Hat,” and the superficiality of the characters and their relationships is part of Bogdonavich’s point. The star’s voices aren’t helped by the on-set singing, but compared to, say, Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia,” they’re fine, and Reynolds and Kahn are actually quite good in the film, hitting the right tone (Shepherd, less so). And the ending, without spoiling it, is kind of fascinating. Was it a folly, out of step with the times, and one big enough to more-or-less permanently derail the director’s career (he sort-of-apologized for the picture in a trade ad)? Sure. Is it one of the worst movies ever made? Absolutely not. It wasn’t even the worst musical of the year it was released — “Funny Lady” is a much more painful sit.
“Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) – Brian De Palma
In retrospect, “Bonfire of the Vanities” is the perfect swirl of hubris, cultural intrigue, and creative compromise that makes for the boldest, most fascinating flops. You have a director (Brian De Palma) — coming off “Casualties of War,” a bleak but very good film that was a personal triumph but a commercial flop — desperate for a studio smash, taking on the hottest and most talked-about property in the country, Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller. The studio (Warner Bros), almost immediately became skittish about some of the book’s more questionable passages and began a series of crippling concessions, notably from a casting point of view where we get Bruce Willis as a John Cleese-esque English novelist, and in an effort to ease the more offensive, race-bait-y material, a blowhard Jewish judge becomes, in the name of good taste, Morgan Freeman. Maybe most disastrous was the film’s release date – by December 1990, the class politics of the 1980s that the book so savagely skewered had begun to seem musty and dated. While the film does contain a handful of brilliant moments, mostly thanks to De Palma’s unparalleled visual prowess (like the opening, unbroken shot that follows Willis into a reception and the famous shot of the Concord landing), it’s an absolute slog to try and sit through again, wrongheaded and tone-deaf on almost every level. The one good thing that the movie did produce, though, was one of the all-time great making-of film books, Julie Salamon’s “The Devil’s Candy.” De Palma had agreed that Salamon could meticulously chronicle the making of his next film, not knowing the fiasco she would ultimately end up capturing. It’s fascinating, insightful, probing, and proves that sometimes, everything that can go wrong, does. (De Palma would arguably never recover, either. Sure, he made the brilliant “Carlito’s Way” and still holds sway over his adoring cult of fans, but in the years since has largely been ignored by critics and audiences.) Even more LOL-worthy than Salamon’s book is a segment from the documentary “Boffo” (about surprise box office hits and disasters), wherein Freeman is asked about the failure of “Bonfire of the Vanities.” His answer is so wry, so deadpan, and so clearly annoyed – he says he knew it was happening and that it was so rotten due to a series of poor decisions. You can tell, after all these years, that this horrible movie is still nagging at him. It’s still nagging at us, too.
“Buddy Buddy” (1981) – Billy Wilder
Can we just settle on something now: Billy Wilder is one of the three or four greatest filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood, a man who knocked out classic after classic across a forty-year career. But while there were a few misfires along the way, including the Bing Crosby musical “The Emperor Waltz” and the troubled production of “Kiss Me Stupid,” none was as painful as “Buddy Buddy,” the 1981 comedy that would prove to be Wilder’s last film. In theory, it was a home run: Wilder had a script, a remake of a French hit, with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who worked on most of the director’s best pictures, and reunited with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with whom he’d had much success with “The Fortune Cookie” and “The Front Page.” But it’s a shadow of their finer work by all involved, unfortunately. Matthau plays a hitman, whose latest job is impaired by a suicidal TV inventor, whose wife has fallen in love with a sexual therapist (Klaus Kinski, who would later deny being in the film at all). But the darker tone feels uncomfortable: Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe, in the latter’s must-read book “Conversations With Wilder,” that the film “was not the kind of comedy I had an affection for… Here is the problem. The audience laughs, and then they sort of resent it. Because it’s negativity. Dead bodies and such. If you hold up a mirror too closely to this kind of behavior, they don’t like it.” Of course, Wilder was behind plenty of very black comedies that worked like gangbusters, but there’s something sour and charmless — not an easy feet with Jack Lemmon around — about “Buddy Buddy” and, more importantly, it’s rarely funny, bar a few good lines (Kinski’s “Premature ejaculations means always having to say you’re sorry” being a stand-out). The film’s critical and commercial failure clearly hit Wilder hard: he flirted with other projects, including “Schindler’s List,” but never made another picture. Having said that, it is still better than “The Emperor Waltz”…
“Deal Of The Century” (1983) – William Friedkin
Something curious happened to William Friedkin after “The Exorcist” — no one wanted to watch his movies. The trio of films that followed the horror classic — “The Brink’s Job,” “Sorcerer” and the controversial “Cruising” — were all flops to varying degrees but quality-wise, they were good (acknowledging that yes, the sexual politics and themes of the latter are queasy at best). But in 1983, if anyone decided to stay away from “Deal Of The Century,” we don’t blame them. Written by Paul Brickman (“Risky Business”) and starring a promising trio of Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver and Gregory Hines, if anything, the film proves that Friedkin doesn’t have a comedic bone in his body. One part “Airplane”-style farce, mixed with a subtler, more sardonic attempt at “Dr. Strangelove-type humor, patched together by a wandering, intermittent and unnecessary voiceover by Chase that finds him delivering quips better suited to a ‘50s police procedural, “Deal Of The Century” tries everything to get a laugh but doesn’t raise a smile. The plot, such at is is, sees Chase as a shady but successful arms seller (not unlike Nicolas Cage in “Lord Of War”) who has the chance to close a $300 million dollar arms deal when a sales opportunity falls into his lap. This is of course, the simplified version. We’ve failed to mention that he gets the job thanks to his competitor, played by Wallace Shawn, committing suicide, or that his partner Ray (Hines) is a born-again Christian, or that the film opens on Christmas Eve and closes with Alvin & The Chipmunks singing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” over the end credits for no discernible reason. We won’t even bother to explain how Weaver gets roped into the plot. The script fumbles desperately to try and make a statement about the inherent evil and emptiness of selling weapons, while painting the manufacturers as merchants of death, but the wildly uneven tone undoes the film at every turn, as politicians and military are as much the butt of jokes as they are part of it. Scenes that you think are supposed to be funny turn out to be dramatic, and then vice versa. And it certainly doesn’t help that after so much hand-wringing (particularly by Ray) about the consequences of their business, that the film’s climatic sequence is a (horribly shot and blue-screened) air battle that ends with a gigantic explosion. And that’s not to mention the casual racism that is peppered throughout, in particular aimed at South Americans. Perhaps in a bid to inject some kind of relevance, clips of Ronald Reagan making speeches about war are crudely inserted but it’s too little, far too late. Dull, and bereft of any wit, life or even a solid point, “Deal Of The Century” explains why Friedkin has waited nearly three decades to give comedy another whirl and his upcoming “Killer Joe” will let us see if he’s learned anything from past mistakes.
“Death Becomes Her” (1992) – Robert Zemeckis
Warning sign number one probably should have been that Robert Zemeckis, director of the warm-and-fuzzy “Back to the Future” trilogy, would be tackling a dreary black comedy. “But he co-created ‘Tales from the Crypt!'” you exclaim. Yeah, well, those were thirty minute trifles that only needed a couple of gory exclamation points to rile up audiences, whereas a feature-length film, especially something as tricky as a dark comedy, requires a sustained, measured, perfectly punctuated sentence. Notorious for its poor test screenings and long-after-the-facts reshoots (which led to some creative last-minute editorial overhauls), “Death Becomes Her” sports an all-star cast (including Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossellini) in desperate need of better material. Ostensibly a farce about Hollywood’s obsession with age and beauty, it’s about two friends (Streep and Hawn) turned bitter enemies, who are assisted in their vainglorious pursuits by a mystic (Rossellini) offering the secret to eternal youth. Also, for some reason, Bruce Willis plays a plastic surgeon who spends much of the last act of the movie trying to kill everyone. Zemeckis, always searching for the opportunity to cram every movie he makes with some questionable cutting-edge technology, stages elaborate sequences where the characters nearly die but can’t, due to the magic serum, so we get to see Meryl Streep with her head on backwards and Goldie Hawn with a shotgun blast through her stomach. The fact that these are arguably the movie’s “highlights,” should show you what pitiful material we’re dealing with. The film’s lone chuckle is coughed out during a sequence where Willis walks through a crowd of long-thought-dead celebrities (including Elvis). Funny that a movie obsessed with immortality should die such a quick death.
“Dune” (1984) – David Lynch
David Lynch didn’t so much “lose the plot” with “Dune,” as find one – 412 pages of plot, to be precise, that, as the resulting film evidences clearly, he had some difficulty marshalling into a manageable, understandable 2 hour-long film. Which is to say, he didn’t. Audiences found ”Dune” incomprehensible, grotesque and overly involved (all criticisms that have been laid at Lynch’s subsequent work but, you know, in a good way), and stayed away in droves. In retrospect, it’s easy to think he was a poor choice from the beginning, but this was a Lynch with only two features behind him, “Eraserhead” – which showed an appropriately off-kilter, retro sci-fi sensibility and “The Elephant Man,” – which showed he could do classic, crowdpleasing fare too: on paper, who more perfect to take on the beloved Frank Herbert epic? Now, full disclosure, this writer actually kinda loves the film despite the clunkiness of the dialogue, the redundancies of those horrible voiceovers, the cheese ‘n’ hamminess of some of the acting, and the, oh, about a million other problems. But in those rare moments when “Dune” succeeds, it’s actually dazzling – the steampunk design of the House Atreides interiors, the ornate, intricately detailed sets (all 80 of them), the improbable but oddly great anachronism of Toto’s ’80s guitars meeting Brian Eno’s glimmery drones on the soundtrack: all these elements are truly visionary, and if you can get a handle on the narrative, the epic sweep of the filmmaker’s ambition actually serves the Messiah origin story rather well. However, Lynch did not have final cut (the studio added exposition-y voiceover and ruthlessly excised subplots and entire characters to reduce the running time) and since he largely refuses to talk about the notoriously troubled process of making the film, we’ll probably never know just how much better, or worse, his longer version might have been (this piece is good and Lynch shoulders a lot of the blame himself). That his next directorial outing would be his first truly auteurist masterpiece, “Blue Velvet,” however, a miracle of tonal control, creeping unease and economical storytelling, speaks volumes for just how steep a learning curve Lynch went through on “Dune.” For that, if for nothing else, we should be glad of it.
“Elizabethtown” – (2005) – Cameron Crowe
When Cameron Crowe made “Vanilla Sky” it seemed to fans that he had veered somewhat off course, and when the promos for “Elizabethtown” arrived 4 years later, it seemed that he had gone back to his roots. Music, kids in love, angst, road trips, and a great actress in the role of matriach (Susan Sarandon). Wrong! Instead, what we got was a watered-down version of the indie-hit-by-numbers of the year before, “Garden State”. “Elizabethtown” stars Kirsten Dunst as the Manic Pixie Dream Flight Attendant who’s seemingly waited all her life to save Orlando Bloom, the Braff-wannabe who is unable to forge a meaningful connection and whose life is totally going down the gurgler – aw, sad face. Throw in the family reunion, the aforementioned road trip, some Ryan Adams and Tom Petty on the soundtrack and it’s all downhill from there. “Elizabethtown” is barely a shadow of Crowe’s quotable and beloved hits “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous.” His attempts at quirk appear phony, there is so much music it becomes a distraction instead of a complement and his characters are little more than 2-by-4s. The only saving grace is Alec Baldwin’s brief appearance as Bloom’s boss at the beginning of the film — which is long forgotten once you’ve sat through Sarandon’s speech and dance number .
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1996) – John Frankenheimer
Not the first bad film John Frankenheimer ever made (the man had far too long and diverse a career for that), “The Island of Dr. Moreau” is probably the worst bad film John Frankenheimer ever made. If the near-legendary tales are true, the shoot was miserable from the get go, and that it should result in such a miserable experience for the audience is probably only fitting. It’s muddled, tonally erratic, and by turns high-falutin’ in attempting to provoke religious, ethical and even existential debate, and downright silly as a bunch of dog-men find machine guns and stuff explodes for no reason. Disastrous onscreen, it was pandemonium offscreen: Frankenheimer himself was a last-minute replacement for Richard Stanley who was fired after four days’ shooting, having worked on the project for four years; rewritten script pages were turned in minutes before scenes were shot, and Val Kilmer was going through a messy divorce and demanded a change of role with Rob Morrow. Who subsequently walked off the set, to be replaced by David Thewlis. Who hated working on it so much he vowed never to watch the finished product. So why did everyone put themselves through this? For most of the talent involved, the answer was the same “to work with Marlon Brando.” Brando, himself grieving from the suicide of his daughter and having his lines piped into his ear via a radio transmitter, gives a performance so pantomimed that it might prove the lowest of the film’s many low points, were it not for Kilmer. Ah, Kilmer: all baffling line readings and inappropriate emotional reactions, the nadir is reached when Val’s Dr. Montgomery replaces Dr. Moreau, giving Kilmer the opportunity to “do” his Brando. Perhaps Frankenheimer, director of true classics like “The Train” and “The Manchurian Candidate” can’t wholly be blamed for phoning it in, in an effort to speedily put the whole thing behind him, but he still needs to take at least partial responsibility for the resulting fiasco: as ill-starred as the production clearly was all along, sometimes remarkable work can be borne from chaos, witness “Apocalypse Now,” or just about any Herzog film. “The Island of Dr. Moreau” however, was not one of those times. Oh the horror, indeed.
“Krull” (1983) – Peter Yates
In a directorial career spanning four decades, Peter Yates, who died in January of this year, tackled a host of genres, turning out iconic classics in some (the “Bullitt” car chase is still a breathtaking touchstone, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a gritty near-masterpiece) and forgettable, sometimes disposable efforts in others. But in a filmography notable for troughs as well as peaks, 1983’s “Krull” still stands out as an oddity, not just because of its genre — it was the director’s only foray into sci-fi/ fantasy (far more the latter than the former), but also because of the atypical amateurishness of the film’s direction. Other entries in Yates’s catalogue might have suffered script or plotting problems, but they were always competently put together, but here, aside from one successful sequence featuring a crystal spider and a cool, Lady of Shalott vibe, even basic timing goes out the window, cross cutting is botched and ineffective, and stakes are never properly felt, let alone upped. Notwithstanding some praiseworthy elements, (James Horner seems to be scoring a much better film, and some of the set design is truly spectacular) its paper-thin plotting and underdrawn characterization make watching the film a slog, unless it’s part of some sort of drinking game. The supporting cast featuring Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson and Mark Fowler off “Eastenders,” (as well as, Francesca Annis and Freddie Jones two fine actors who would reteam for another film on this list, “Dune”) do what they can to offset the bland leads, but, as one of a glut of “Star Wars” me-toos that studios rushed out around this time, “Krull” has none of the magic that makes its progenitor so endlessly adored, and not even enough camp value to be classed as silly fun. Neither good, nor so bad it’s good, it seems “Krull” is just bad enough to be plain bad. And then the director follows it up the same year with “The Dresser” a richly-drawn character study that earned Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nods as well as Best Actor noms for both its leads. Go figure.
“New York, New York” (1977) – Martin Scorsese
It is no great surprise that many of the directors on this list came of age career-wise during the 1970s “auteur is king” period of Hollywood. “New York, New York” comes off the back of a hit for Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”), who was starting to feel pigeon-holed by his trademark ‘gritty realism,’ so to test his creative boundaries he made a 2-hour-plus musical with Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophone player. The shooting period was not a great time for Scorsese personally; he was splitting with his second, and very pregnant, wife and had begun an affair with his lead actress, Liza Minnelli. It was meant to be a tribute to the faux glitz of the ’40s and ’50s, and Minnelli’s doe-eyed, cherub-cheeked tribute to her mother, Judy Garland, is as subtle as a rock. Minnelli and De Niro are cast as a romantic couple, and their relationship woes take up much of the time between songs, but the only thing worse than watching Minnelli and De Niro pretend to be in love is watching them trying to improvise dialogue between the script’s potholes — and running at a long 155 minutes (for the 1981 recut, with added footage) there are quite a few. Scorsese and De Niro can’t escape what they are comfortable with and arguably best at, so De Niro keeps playing a half-assed Jake La Motta and Scorsese lets him. What could be seen as efforts to subvert the Old Hollywood musical genre just make it fall in on itself. Despite all the talent, Scorsese’s first big-budget picture was a resounding flop, financially and critically. Perhaps the only saving grace was De Niro got in some extra character practice for his next film with Scorsese, and Liza Minnelli got a great song to add to her repertoire.
“One From The Heart” (1982) – Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola was part of the crop of American filmmakers (among them George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma) dubbed “the movie brats” – filmmakers who, while going through the motions of film school, had been pretty much raised on movies themselves. Which may help explain why “One from the Heart,” an extravagantly ill-fated musical, feels less like an honest-to-god experience and more like a lecture on the Hollywood musicals of old. Everything about the movie feels garish and unfortunate – from its Las Vegas setting (which led to a nearly complete fabrication of the Strip, which adds to its removed-from-reality gauziness) to its bizarre cast (Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr, Natassja Kinski and Raul Julia – what?), to its score, which was mostly composed of songs written by Tom Waits and… Crystal Gayle. The film is handsomely produced and sumptuously photographed (by Vittorio Storaro), but dramatically bankrupt and weirdly removed. Critics and audiences ignored it, and despite its endurance as a nearly forgotten cult oddity (it came out on DVD only a few years ago), it stands as one of the true blights on Coppola’s career, with nary a memorable scene or hummable song. At one point he stated that most of the movies he made throughout the 1980s and 1990s, regrettable studio misfires like “The Godfather Part III” and “Jack,” were made to repay debts incurred during “One from the Heart”‘s production. It also stands as possibly the least interesting musical made by the movie brats – De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” and Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York,” for all their faults, arguably best the disappointing “One From The Heart.”
“Pirates” (1986) – Roman Polanski
You might think you know the trajectory of Polanski’s career, but you need to take a closer look to fully understand the head-scratching, self-destructive follow-up choices he made, which make his filmography read like “masterpiece, disaster, hit, disaster…” etc. While “Rosemary’s Baby” is a horror classic, the filmmaker followed that up with the terribly uneven “Macbeth” and the outre, absurdist comedy “What?”. Then came “Chinatown,” showing him arguably at the peak of his powers, which was followed by the awesome, but totally gonzo psychological freak-out, “The Tenant.” The drama “Tess” would put Polanski back in the graces of critics and the Oscars, but then he would wait nearly seven years for his what is probably his most egregious plot-losing venture, “Pirates.” If one is looking for the textbook definition on how not to make a swashbuckling adventure picture, this is it. Perhaps the film’s biggest mistake is the cast. Watching Johnny Depp’s charming fey pirate in the ‘Caribbean’ movies, even the bad ones, grossly underlines how miscast in the lead Walter Matthau is. The rest of the ensemble — Frenchman Cris Campion, Charlotte Lewis, Olu Jacobs and Damien Thomas are a charisma-free motley crew. Shot on location in Tunisia, using a full-sized pirate vessel constructed for the production, the picture was a massive financial and critical failure and deservedly so. While Polanski-ites will enjoy some of its loopy charms and questionable choices — two comical rape sequences are beyond bad taste — the picture is incontestably inert, though Philippe Sarde’s score must be applauded for masking its moorless tempo with a small pulse. The picture reportedly cost $40 million at the time and grossed around $1.65 million in return. It’s never been on DVD in the U.S. and there’s never been a remotely plausible argument to remedy that situation.
“Saturn 3” (1980) – Stanley Donen
When one remembers the great American director and choreographer Stanley Donen one thinks of the man dubbed “the king of musicals.” Responsible for some of cinema’s greatest song and dance films, “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Damn Yankees!,” and “Funny Face,” plus comedies, and stylish thrillers with equal grace and pizzaz, “Bedazzled,” “Arabesque” and “Charade,” no other flub is as egregious in Donen’s estimable career than “Saturn 3.” As ill-conceived as they get, this oxygen-less and painfully suspenseless sci-fi blemish stars Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett as two scientists (and lovers) whose remote utopian base in the asteroid fields of Saturn is intruded upon by an unstable sociopath masquerading as a fellow technocrat and scientist, played by Harvey Keitel, who has been sent from Earth to check up on the progress of their experimental food research studies (Earth has naturally turned toxic in this future). Horribly miscast, Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent was redubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice in certain versions (who strangely enough adopted an American accent that doesn’t sound too dissimilar from Keitel’s own). Arriving just three years after the sci-fi boon of “Star Wars,” this failure is riddled with terrible effects, while the malevolent robot in the picture — hilariously named Hector — is laughably constructed and excruciatingly non-menacing. Conceived by “Star Wars” production designer John Barry (who was originally tapped to direct) and scored by Elmer Bernstein, unfortunately no amount of talent could salvage the disaster that is this colossal tonal miscalculation. During the 1st annual Golden Raspberry Awards “Saturn 3” was nominated for Worst Picture, Actor and Actress.
“Popeye” (1980) – Robert Altman
Cocaine: it’s a helluvadrug. You want foolish and ill-conceived ideas from a hazy mind? There’s no coincidence between producer Robert Evans falling on hard times and “Popeye” (Evans was convicted for attempting to buy bags of blow during production). Evans’ bright idea was hiring iconoclast Robert Altman to direct a big-budget mainstream family film and musical. Altman hired Harry Nilsson to score the film, and rarely tempered his overlapping dialogue and cross-cutting style. Starring a mumbling Robin Williams as the titular sailorman, a diverting Shelley Duvall (whose futzing, puttering around, worried character might be the most enjoyable part), plus character actors Ray Walston and Paul Dooley, the biggest issue might be the glacial pacing and lethargic script by Jules Feiffer (“Carnal Knowledge”), not to mention a charisma-free villain in Paul L. Smith. Sporting the tone of a fully sated Altman on an all-expenses paid vacation in Malta — where the film was shot on location to the tune of a cool $20 million (not sliced bread for 1980) — “Popeye” has its occasional jovial and whimsical moments, but there’s just so much fat around the meat, it’s hard to find the actual story: it’s apparently about a fatherless sailor in search of his pappi (like the story really matters). Part of “Popeye”’s biggest problem is that it seems like a rudderless narrative that is an excuse for Popeye to eventually eat spinach, kick Bluto’s ass and finally play the famous Popeye theme from the cartoon. But up to that point, the picture feels like rote and rather protracted foreplay (Leonard Maltin called it, “astonishingly boring” at the time, and he’s at least half right). These days “Popeye” is perhaps best remembered for featuring the song “He Needs Me,” which Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated for “Punch Drunk Love.”
“The Wiz” (1978) – Sidney Lumet
One can safely argue that whenever the great Sidney Lumet left New York, his films felt unmoored, out of place or uneven (his Southern trip with Brando, “The Fugitive Kind” never quite gels, for example). And while the 1978 musical “The Wiz,” was still set in and around a magical Big Apple, this major detour for Lumet just didn’t have enough Gotham grittiness to anchor the filmmaker. A famous disco, funk and Broadway-made soul remake of “The Wizard Of Oz,” this ill-conceived fantasy musical stars Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, a beguiling Nispy Russell as The Tinman (perhaps the finest of all the players) and Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion. Composed in a variety of rather bland and wide master shots, Lumet never seems comfortable during the dance and musical numbers and thus most of these moments are rather flat. While Russell, Ross and Richard Pryor as the Wiz(ard) are diverting, Ross melodramatically seems lto be on the verge of tears in every sequence whether happy, sad or scary, and Jackson is so suited to play a childlike simpleton, it’s almost scary. Joel Schumacher’s — yes that Joel Schumacher — script is enervating and by the numbers, and poor Quincy Jones, who only acted as a music supervisor as a favor to Lumet, can’t give this picture any cooking grease. While not as dismal as some of these failures — there’s a harmless sweet joy to some of the picture that’s marginally charming in spots — it’s certainly not Lumet’s best work and would remain the only genre exercise the filmmaker would tackle in his career. A commercial and critical flop at the time, the film still managed to earn itself four Academy Awards nominations.
“The Lovely Bones” (2009) – Peter Jackson
Our hearts weren’t broken when Peter Jackson moved from the world of gross-out horror and shock cinema when he made the haunting “Heavenly Creatures.” The picture still stands up today as his finest hour, a moving, grisly but ultimately life-affirming story of two young friends who never want to be apart. So he should have been a perfect fit, post-“Lord Of The Rings,” to tackle Alice Sebold’s tragic story of a dead girl observing the lives she’s left behind from beyond the grave. Except something had changed in Jackson’s approach. Perhaps his previous attention to detail had morphed into a grandiose, perverse ease with death that saps “The Lovely Bones” of its weight, maybe it was hubris: the film did not need a budget in the realm of $100 million, but with the then-looming writer’s strike, studios desperately to acquiesced to filmmakers demanding even the most exorbitant budgets. And maybe it was just an embarrassment of riches — Jackson had yet to work with such a starry cast of Oscar winners, nevermind a composer like Brian Eno or a best-selling work that didn’t generate the ferverent following of his last two adaptations, “LOTR” and “King Kong.” Whatever the case, “The Lovely Bones” is borderline tone-deaf at times, notably excising the rape experienced by our lead character while pumping up the pedophilic tendencies of Stanley Tucci’s nightmare-house creep (nominated for an Oscar, simply because some people just love camp). Moments of questionable tact are dialed up to eleven, as the narrative is juiced by wacky montages, jacked-up race-against-time sequences, and explosions of garish CGI that drown out the humanity provided by a typically strong turn from Saoirse Ronan. It’s no wonder Jackson has since retreated back to Middle Earth, licking his wounds: his time spent with fantasy worlds may have left him cold to actual human emotions.
“Village of the Damned” (1995) – John Carpenter
John Carpenter had considerable success, if not financial, then at least artistic, when he remade the hoary sci-fi film “The Thing From Another World” into the balls-to-the-walls “The Thing.” He probably reasoned that he could pull that trick off again, borrowing from 1960’s “Village of the Damned” (and to a lesser degree that film’s sequel, “Children of the Damned”), for his 1995 remake. He figured wrong. The movie has a killer premise (which originated in a 1957 science fiction novel, “The Midwich Cuckoos,” by John Wyndham) – a small town’s female population is mysteriously impregnated all at the same time. The children grow up to be white-haired ghouls. Eventually, the children, using some inherent psychic powers, force the grown-ups of the town to kill themselves. Spooky, for sure, and who doesn’t love a movie in which the “heroes” attempt to massacre children for the good of mankind? Well, when the script is this dopey, you want everyone to die (especially when the decidedly B-rate cast is anchored by a pre-injury Christopher Reeve and populated with puffy has-beens like Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill). More troubling is that the film is punctuated by extreme violence, another hallmark of “The Thing” unrealistically transported here, and the overuse of embryonic computer generated special effects. Every time one of the kids is doing something fiendish, a computerized, whirlpool-ish flame ignites in their eyes. The sensation isn’t exactly one of otherworldly terror, but rather that someone has left the light on in the electronic jack-o-lantern. For a man who, in the previous decade, defined nightmares, this effectively signaled the end of one of filmmaking’s premiere visual stylists.
“Zabriskie Point” (1970) – Michelangelo Antonioni
After four opaque, but unimpeachable meditations on modern alienation and ennui (“L’avventura,” “La Notte” “Eclipse,” “Red Desert”) and one existential murder mystery cum ‘60s mod masterpiece (“Blow-Up”), Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni was bound to lose his balance, and falter he did with his romanticized, let’s-fight-the-man counter-culture fiasco, “Zabriskie Point.” Antonioni’s first mistake was hiring two flat unknowns who can’t act (Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin) to play revolutionary hippie lovers on the run after a policeman is killed during a student riot (in typical Antonioni fashion, it’s unclear whether the rebel without a clear cause in the male half of this duo is responsible). Featuring trippy original music by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia, plus music by The Rolling Stones and John Fahey, its musical hipness was never enough to save a sluggish and inert screenplay (written by committee, one writer being Sam Shepard) and blissfully stoned pacing. It is perhaps best remembered for its ridiculous empty-headed ending, which features a mansion being blown up in slow motion over and over again — a dream-like imagining from the female lead at all the bourgeoise-ness around her that led to her lover’s death. While brutally panned by critics — Rolling Stone called it one of the “most extraordinary disasters in modern cinematic history” — Antonioni would redeem himself years later with 1975’s “The Passenger,” perhaps boasting the distinction of being the most oblique (and slowest) picture Jack Nicholson ever starred in.
“Zardoz” (1974) – John Boorman
While his career was never completely impeccable, the man who delivered one deconstructed crime classic (“Point Blank”) and one horrifying thriller that would do for the deep backwoods South what “Jaws” did for the water (“Deliverance”), John Boorman would stumble hard with his sixth feature-length effort, “Zardoz.” What does Boorman do with the carte blanche cachet earned from the hit that was “Deliverance”? Blows it on a sci-fi picture that starts off with a floating-head prologue from a queer magician narrator, before a gigantic stone god head descends upon a planet of savages, proceeds to barf up rifles and tells the heathen “exterminators” to go forth and destroy all the peon “brutals” on earth (the stonehenge deity also gives them this pearl of wisdom: “the gun is good. The penis is evil”). Set in the post-apocalyptic Earth of AD 2293, “Zardoz” centers on a hirsute and Zapatta-moustached exterminator (Sean Connery) who sneaks into the aforementioned Godhead and is accidentally sent to the Vortex, a realm that houses a secret cabal of immortal gods known as Eternals (headed up by ice queen Charlotte Rampling) that are exploiting the masses with this fraudulent “Zardoz” floating head deity and scare tactic. “Wizard of Oz”-like, Connery’s pony-tailed and scruffy chested hero then sets out to reveal their grand scheme. Written, produced and directed by Boorman, god knows why, but this picture was actually a pet project of his, and it might have landed him in permanent director’s jail if it weren’t for the successful “Excalibur” in 1981. Admittedly, the kaleidoscopic visuals, ambitious metaphysical textures and bizarro ending of the last act is impressive — as if Kubrick dropped a little LSD — but ultimately, “Zardoz,” while ironically enjoyable, is indisputable messy; a headscratching and often times unintentionally funny misfire.
Honorable Mentions: Honestly, we could be here all day: the twenty names above are hardly the only directors to misfire at some point (in fact, it’s a good game to try and work out the helmers who never went off the boil, or at least haven’t yet. Kubrick? Hitchcock? Nolan?). But we tried to pick the more interesting films: no-one needs a few hundred words on Rob Reiner’s “North,” even if it’s a classic example of what we’re talking about, an indulgent misfire after which the helmer never seemed to regain his mojo properly.
Nevertheless, a quick list of classic also-rans would include “Honky Tonk Freeway,” for which John Schlesinger was entirely unsuited (his last film “The Next Best Thing,” is also an embarrassment), Robert Wise’s deathly dull “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Howard Hawks’ “Rio Lobo,” a pale shadow of his better Westerns, and John Huston’s “Annie,” another example of a great director coming unstuck in the musical genre.
More recently, Ridley Scott’s got a few, most egregiously “1492: Conquest of Paradise” and “A Good Year,” his brother Tony had the nonsensical “Domino,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” is legendary in its failure, Mike Nichols’ “Wolf” is something of a misstep, as is Barry Levinson’s “Toys,” while Gus Van Sant seemed to leave his judgement at home for both “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” and, more notably, “Psycho.”
Furthermore, Frank Darabont’s “The Majestic” was an indulgent, overlong mess, Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was somewhat bonkers, especially for a superhero tentpole (although it’s a film this writer has a great fondness for), Tim Burton never really seemed to get his gifts back after “Planet of the Apes,” and the Coens had two rare duds in a row with “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.” Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” was a classically hubristic example, whichever cut you see, Wong Kar-Wai faltered in his English language debut “My Blueberry Nights” and Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” is close to being unwatchable, while “The Good German” isn’t terrible, but, like “At Long Last Love,” is more pastiche than actual movie, and is one of Steven Soderbergh‘s rare misses.