Tomorrow sees the release of The Wachowskis‘ “Jupiter Ascending,” a bonkers sci-fi fantasy that sees Channing Tatum‘s dog-man team up with Mila Kunis‘s Russian bathroom attendant to save the Earth. Delayed for over six months, the expensive would-be blockbuster has been battling bad buzz for some time, and seemingly with good reason: reviews so far, including ours, have been mostly poisonous, even from avowed defenders of the sibling pair behind “The Matrix.”
Some would have argued that Andy and Lana Wachowski never successfully followed-up their 1999 sci-fi smash: the films’ sequels never recaptured what made the original so special; “Speed Racer” was for many a headache-inducing nightmare (though it has its fans); and “Cloud Atlas” was divisive at best (and it too has its supporters). But “Jupiter Ascending” appears to be the moment where the filmmakers finally went off the deep-end, with a deeply indulgent, insane film that will likely lose a ton of money and may prove hard to bounce back from.
The pair are following a long tradition of filmmakers who after attaining a certain amount of wealth and power took a total left-turn or racked up their excesses to make a total fiasco. Some of those films we hate, others we (somewhat perversely) love, some have been critically reevaluated over the years, others remain derided or forgotten, but very few of them are remotely boring.
It’s a favorite category of ours in the careers of the great filmmakers, and so with “Jupiter Ascending” hitting theaters tomorrow, we return to a subject we first tackled a few years ago, souping up old write-ups and adding a bunch of new ones. Below you’ll find our by-no-means definitive lists of interesting cinematic indiscretions, missteps, blunders and failures by some of the greatest ever filmmakers. Let us know your own favorites/least favorites in the comments, and you can find out how “Jupiter Ascending” fits into that list from Friday.
“1492: Conquest Of Paradise” (1992) /”A Good Year” (2006) – Ridley Scott
It shows a sort of strength of character that a filmmaker can have multiple lost-the-plot movies and still stay atop the A-list. Ridley Scott is one example: the director’s had not several potential bed-shitters across his career, from the originally-a-flop “Blade Runner” to the recent “The Counselor” and “Exodus.” Arguably his greatest folly was “1492: Conquest Of Paradise,” one of a string of movies produced to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. Starring Gerard Depardieu for some reason as Columbus, it’s an example of a movie led by release date and everything else second, its typically lavish visuals let down by a positively snoozeworthy script and a seemingly disengaged Scott. It’s his lowest-grossing film in the U.S. (bar debut “The Duelists”) for a reason, but not far ahead is a film that’s actually far more of a puzzling left-turn for the director: 2006’s “A Good Year.” The idea of one of cinema’s top visualists taking on a drab fish-out-of-water holiday-porn vineyard-set rom-com is a bit like Nancy Meyers making torture porn, and the results about as successful as you might imagine: Russell Crowe is spectacularly miscast as a character whose redemption is mostly unearned, Scott has little gift for light-hearted comedy, and it’s about as rewarding as being shown a slideshow of holiday photos by a distant relative.
“1941” (1979) – Steven Spielberg
“I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie,” said Spielberg of his 1979 war-comedy, but how bad was his famously unloved follow-up to “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind“? That depends on your tolerance for unfunny comedies. Kicking off with an indulgent parody of the director’s own “Jaws,” 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 every woman he sees; Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) is forced to house an anti-aircraft millitary weapon; Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) accidentally blows up a gasoline station… and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, nothing ever meshes together, comic timing is seemingly absent, and the filmmaker’s penchant for theatrical set pieces and explosions only makes it worse. That said, 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 more recent “cult status” is a little 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-centeredness. But we like when Spielberg makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t we?
“Alexander” (2003) – Oliver Stone
Stone has been well known throughout this career for taking jagged leaps at history and the American psyche, and whatever you may think of “Natural Born Killers” or “JFK,” or even lesser offerings like “U-Turn” there’s no denying the filmmaker has energy and iconoclasm to burn. Which is what makes “Alexander,” a ponderous, sluggish, dull-as-dishwater period retelling of the mythic story of the greatest general of all time, such a classic case of “losing the plot” — the whole endeavor reeks of hubris. And fall it did, with Colin Farrell’s shaky, bottle blond performance only the tip of an iceberg of shit and a subsequent Stone filmography that doesn’t include one worthwhile narrative feature. It had to have been a problem with the edit, right? Sadly, all the recut versions (there are four in circulation: the theatrical cut, the 2005 Director’s Cut, the 2007 “Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut” and the 2013 “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut Tenth Anniversary Edition“) seemed to do was make the film less of a punchline about bad hairdos, terrible performances and crap scripting and more of a joke about not being able to leave bad enough alone.
“At Long Last Love” (1975) – Peter Bogdanovich
At one point, Bogdanovich looked to be the most bulletproof of the 1970s young gun gang of directors. He followed taut B-movie “Targets” with three back-to-back critical and commercial hits: the multi-Oscar-nominated “The Last Picture Show,” screwball comedy throwback “What’s Up Doc?,” and “Paper Moon,” a funny, touching Depression-era father-daughter tale. But then things started to unravel. 1974 brought ill-conceived Henry James adaptation “Daisy Miller,” 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-style musical, using a 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. Critics loathed the film (particularly Reynolds’ and Shepherd’s singing) and it tanked, but it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests: it’s fluff, certainly, but Reynolds and Kahn are quite good and the ending is fascinating. Was it a folly big enough to more-or-less 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 that year: “Funny Lady” is much more painful.
“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 desperate for a studio smash, taking on the hottest and most talked-about property in the country, namely Tom Wolfe‘s 1987 bestseller. 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 an English novelist, and in an effort to ease the more race-bait-y material, a blowhard Jewish judge becomes Morgan Freeman. While the film does contain a handful of brilliant moments, mostly thanks to De Palma’s visual prowess (like the opening, unbroken shot), it’s an absolute slog to sit through again, wrongheaded and tone-deaf on almost every level. The one good thing that the movie did produce was one of the all-time great making-of film books, Julie Salamon‘s “The Devil’s Candy,” a fascinating, insightful account that proves that sometimes everything that can go wrong does, and it is arguably better remembered than the movie itself.
“Buddy Buddy” (1981) – Billy Wilder
Wilder is undeniably one of Hollywood’s greatest-ever filmmakers, but while there were a few misfires along the way, including the Bing Crosby musical “The Emperor Waltz” and the troubled “Kiss Me, Stupid,” none was as painful as “Buddy Buddy,” a 1981 comedy that would be Wilder’s last film. In theory, it was a home run; the script, a remake of a French hit, reunited him with longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and “The Odd Couple” stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. But it’s a shadow of finer work for all involved. 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; Classic Kinski!). Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe in the book “Conversations With Wilder,” “the audience laughs, and then they sort of resent it. Because it’s negativity.” Of course, Wilder made plenty of very black comedies that worked like gangbusters, but there’s something sour and charmless here, and it’s rarely funny. The film’s critical and commercial failure hit Wilder hard. He flirted with other projects, including “Schindler’s List,” but never made another picture.
“Death Becomes Her” (1992) – Robert Zemeckis
Despite significant commenter outrage the last time we included this title, we’re doubling down on Zemeckis’ dreary black comedy that came two years after the disappointing but acceptable “Back to the Future 3.” Notorious for its poor test screenings and long-after-the-fact reshoots, it sports an all-star cast (including Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis and Isabella Rossellini) in what’s ostensibly a farce about Hollywood’s obsession with age and beauty. Two frenemies are assisted in their vainglorious pursuits by a mystic offering the secret to eternal youth, while 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 cutting-edge tech, whether it’s needed or not, stages elaborate sequences where the characters nearly die but can’t due to the magic serum, so we get to see Streep with her head on backwards and Hawn with a shotgun blast through her stomach. The fact that these are arguably the movie’s highlights should indicate the undernourished material we’re dealing with. Perhaps there’s a fuzz of nostalgia around it for some, but for us, this film about death dies one.
“Dune” (1984) – David Lynch
Lynch didn’t so much lose as find the plot with “Dune” — 412 pages of it that he clearly had difficulty marshaling into an understandable two hours. Which is to say that 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 Lynch had only two features behind him, “Eraserhead” with its off-kilter, retro sci-fi sensibility and the classic, crowd-pleasing “The Elephant Man.” So who better to take on the beloved Frank Herbert epic? Despite its flaws, “Dune” is surprisingly lovable and in rare moments dazzling. But Lynch did not have final cut, and since he largely refuses to talk about it, we’ll probably never know what his version might have been. That his next directorial outing would be his first true masterpiece, “Blue Velvet” speaks volumes for just how steep a learning curve Lynch went through on “Dune.” For that, we should be glad.
“Elizabethtown” – (2005) – Cameron Crowe
When Crowe made “Vanilla Sky,” it seemed to his fans that he had veered somewhat off course, and when the promos for “Elizabethtown” arrived four 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 matriarch (Susan Sarandon). Wrong! Instead what we got was a watered-down version of the indie hit of the year before “Garden State.” Starring Kirsten Dunst as the Manic-Pixie Dream-Flight Attendant (indeed, the film is responsible for the birth of the ‘manic-pixie dream-girl’ term) who’s seemingly waited all her life to save Orlando Bloom, as well as being unable to, like, connect, and whose life is totally just so hard right now. There are family reunions, road trips, Ryan Adams and Tom Petty on the soundtrack, and it’s all downhill from there. “Elizabethtown” is barely a shadow of Crowe’s other quotable and beloved hits, and his attempts at quirk feel phony. There is so much music deployed injudiciously, and the 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
Though not the first bad film Frankenheimer ever made, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” is still the worst bad film Frankenheimer ever made. Disastrous onscreen, it was also pandemonium offscreen; the director was a last-minute replacement for Richard Stanley, who was fired after four days’ shooting. 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 that 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 that would be the film’s worst, were it not for Kilmer’s own. Ah, Kilmer: all baffling line readings and inappropriate reactions, the nadir is reached when Kilmer “does” his Brando. Oh the horror, indeed.
“Krull” (1983) – Peter Yates
In a directorial career spanning four decades, Yates tackled a host of genres, turning out iconic classics in some (the “Bullitt” car chase is still a breathtaking touchstone, and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a gritty near-masterpiece) and forgettable, sometimes disposable efforts in others. But 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 its atypical amateurishness. Notwithstanding some praiseworthy elements (James Horner seems to be scoring a much better film, and the set design is spectacular), its paper-thin plotting and under-drawn characterization make watching the film a slog. The supporting cast, featuring Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson and Mark Fowler of “Eastenders,” (as well as Francesca Annis and Freddie Jones, two fine actors who would reteam for another film on this list, “Dune“) can’t offset the bland leads. Neither good, nor so bad it’s good, it seems “Krull” is just bad enough to be plain bad. And then the director followed it up the same year with “The Dresser” that earned Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nods as well as Best Actor noms for both its leads. Go figure.
“The Ladykillers” (2004) – The Coen Brothers
Just the previous year, we were all thinking “hmm, the normally consistent Coens have take a bit of a nosedive with ‘Intolerable Cruelty‘.” But then along came the real black sheep of their peerless oeuvre, with this remake of the beloved Alexander Mackendrick Ealing Comedy, and suddenly the George Clooney/Catherine Zeta Jones flick looked pretty good by comparison (and a rewatch of the latter confirms it’s really not that bad — just about on a par with other minor Coens like “Burn After Reading“). Because “The Ladykillers” doesn’t just have an uncomfortable, chemistry-free cast at its heart via the stagily affected Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, JK Simmons et al, and it doesn’t just have a script that totally misjudges the tone to end up squarely at “sour.” Ultimately, it’s really a bit of an insult to a near-perfect original. To think there is a whole generation who, if they don’t look at you blankly when you say the title, think of this turgid, unfunny, and frankly ugly remake, and not the deliciously dark original with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers stalking around a suburban English house trying their darndest to bump off a sweet little old lady… well, that’s a crime. And fine, the Coens have redeemed themselves with every other film they’ve ever made, but for now, the sole function of “The Ladykillers” is as a salutary reminder that even the mighty can stumble. Hard.
“The Lovely Bones” (2009) – Peter Jackson
When Jackson first moved from the world of gross-out horror, he made the haunting “Heavenly Creatures,” which stands up today as a moving, grisly but, ultimately, life-affirming story. So, post-“Lord Of The Rings,” he should have been a perfect fit to tackle Alice Sebold’s tragic story of a dead girl observing the lives she’s left behind. Except something had changed in Jackson’s approach. There’s a perverse ease with death that saps “The Lovely Bones” of its weight, and surely the film did not need a budget of $100 million? But even a starry cast of Oscar winners and a composer like Brian Eno can’t save it from tone-deafness. 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.
“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 “Taxi Driver,” and Scorcese was starting to feel pigeon-holed, so to test his creative boundaries, he made a two-hour-plus musical with Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophonist. It wasn’t a great time for Scorsese personally — he was splitting with his second wife and having an affair with the new film’s lead, Liza Minnelli. The film was meant to be a tribute to the glitz of the ’40s and ’50s, but Minnelli’s doe-eyed, cherub-cheeked tribute to her mother Judy Garland is as subtle as a rock. 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 155 minutes, there are quite a few. What could be seen as an attempt to subvert the Old Hollywood musical genre instead falls in on itself, so despite all the talent, Scorsese’s first big-budget picture was a resounding financial and critical flop, though he and De Niro would rebound in style with “Raging Bull,” while Minnelli at least got a great song to add to her repertoire.
“North” (1994) – Rob Reiner
Like a middlebrow, populist version of Hal Ashby, Reiner began his career with a brace of classics or near-classics (“This Is Spinal Tap,” “The Sure Thing,” “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men”) before going spectacularly off the boil with a host of poor, ill-judged pictures that few saw. But nothing on his resume is quite as aggressively bad or baffling as “North,” the film that marked his turning point. Based on a novel by SNL writer Alan Zweibel, it’s a lousy, garish, cartoonish would-be family-comedy about the titular kid (a young Elijah Wood) who divorces his neglectful parents (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander), and travels the world in search of replacements, made up of the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Kathy Bates, John Ritter and Graham Greene, and kicking off a nationwide rebellion of children. For a filmmaker who’d previously had such an assured tone, it feels like Reiner must have been replaced by a pod person: the film’s at once overloaded with whimsy and strangely sour, packed with stereotypes, aimed seemingly neither at children nor their parents, and crucially never remotely funny. It even makes itself doubly redundant with a rage-inducing ‘it was all a dream ending.’ It says something that the film’s place in cinema history is best remembered as the inspiration for Roger Ebert’s collection of pans “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie”…
“One From The Heart” (1982) – Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola was part of the crop of American filmmakers dubbed “the movie brats” — filmmakers who had been pretty much raised on movies. Which may help explain why the extravagantly ill-fated musical “One from the Heart” 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 near-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 with nary a memorable scene or hummable song. Reportedly most of Coppola’s ’80s and 90’s films (some real stinkers there, too) were made to pay off “One from the Heart“‘s debts, but even within the canon of flop musicals made by his contemporaries — De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” and Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York,” it’s probably the least.
“Pirates” (1986) – Roman Polanski
Polanski’s filmography can read like “masterpiece, disaster, hit, disaster…” etc. While “Rosemary’s Baby” is a horror classic, the filmmaker followed that film with the terribly uneven “Macbeth,” and the outre absurdist comedy “What?“. Then came his peak “Chinatown,” 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 what is probably his most egregious plot-losing venture “Pirates.” If one is looking for the textbook definition of how not to make a swashbuckling adventure picture, this is it. Perhaps the film’s biggest mistake is a grossly miscast lead in Walter Matthau, but the rest of the cast are a charisma-free motley crew. Shot on location using a full-sized pirate vessel constructed for the production, the picture was a massive financial and critical failure, and its occasional loopy charms hardly make up for two comical rape sequences that are beyond bad taste. Otherwise, the picture is incontestably inert, though Philippe Sarde’s score gives it a weak pulse.
“Planet of the Apes” (2001) – Tim Burton
We’re getting bored hearing ourselves lament Burton’s demise: an eccentric, dark visionary yields to… whatever you might want to call the current incarnation. But if we’re gonna focus the blame as such on one film, it would be this fantastically ill-conceived remake of the 1968 classic. This film features, amongst many other insults to the memory of the original, an altered ending that makes no sense, and Mark Wahlberg stumbling around looking confused instead of Charlton Heston striding about looking manly. Burton’s career may have been slightly off the boil of his early heights, but even the unsatisfying likes of “Mars Attacks” and pretty-but-empty “Sleepy Hollow” couldn’t have prepared anyone for this. In the live action arena, his talents would flash again briefly with “Big Fish” and “Sweeney Todd,” but other than those (and neither is a classic), his post-‘Apes’ filmography makes for very depressing reading (and watching, but if you get a chance, don’t). And with the much touted “return to form” “Big Eyes” turning out to be such a dud, we have to wonder if Burton met a clone of himself on that planet and exchanged places. Come to think of it, that would make more sense than Ape Lincoln, which was supposed to be explained in the sequel — a film that, to his credit, Burton reportedly said he’d rather jump out a window than make.
“Psycho” (1998) – Gus Van Sant
There is a tiny little bit of us, a minute little fragment of freshman film-school pretension, that might have thought “hey, a shot-for-shot remake of ‘Psycho‘ would be cray, right?” And then, even our nineteen-year-old selves would’ve immediately been like, “Naah, terrible idea.” But Van Sant, admittedly never the most consistent director (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” featuring a large-thumbed Uma Thurman was an earlier uh-oh in an erratic career), somehow never reached stage 2. But whatever momentary lapses of sanity may have occurred in one brain, filmmaking is a collaborative art, and moreover somebody had to give him money to carry out this fundamentally ill-conceived and pointless “experiment.” Merely proving that, hey, some movies are special and can’t be recreated just by mimicking camera angles, Van Sant’s “Psycho” should never have gone beyond idle thought experiment, ensnaring not just a terrible Vince Vaughn and a wooden Anne Heche, but an amazing supporting cast of Viggo Mortensen, 2015 Oscar probable Julianne Moore, William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Robert Forster in the sticky web of what very well might be the single most pointless film ever made. Can’t help but think of Hitchcock wobbling with laughter somewhere in the afterlife.
“Popeye” (1980) – Robert Altman
Cocaine: it’s a helluva drug. You want foolish and ill-conceived ideas from a hazy mind? Producer Robert Evans‘ snowy-bright idea was to hire iconoclast Altman to direct a big-budget mainstream family film. But Altman hired Harry Nilsson to score the film, and indulged his own overlapping dialogue and cross-cutting style, giving a mumbling Robin Williams the lead role and casting a diverting Shelley Duvall as Olive. The biggest issue is the glacial pacing and lethargic script by Jules Feiffer, not to mention a charisma-free villain. If “Popeye” has its occasional whimsical moments, there’s too much fat around the meat, and gives the impression of Altman enjoying an all-expenses-paid holiday in Malta, while the $20m budget goes up in Popeye’s pipe smoke. It’s apparently about a fatherless sailor in search of his pappy, but the story is rote (Leonard Maltin called it “astonishingly boring” at the time). These days, “Popeye” is perhaps best remembered for featuring the song “He Needs Me,” which Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated for “Punch Drunk Love.”
“Saturn 3” (1980) – Stanley Donen
“The King of Musicals” Donen was responsible for “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Damn Yankees!,” and “Funny Face,” plus comedies and stylish thrillers made with equal pizzaz like “Bedazzled,” “Arabesque” and “Charade.” And then… “Saturn 3.” As ill-conceived as it gets, this painfully suspenseless sci-fi blemish stars Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett as two scientists/lovers whose remote utopian base in the asteroid fields of Saturn is intruded upon by an unstable sociopath masquerading as a fellow scientist played by Harvey Keitel. Horribly miscast, Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent was redubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice in certain versions (strangely enough, Dotrice adopted an American accent that doesn’t sound too dissimilar from Keitel’s own). With terrible effects — the malevolent robot in the picture is excruciatingly non-menacing, even though it was conceived by “Star Wars” production designer John Barry (who was originally tapped to direct) and scored by Elmer Bernstein — no amount of talent could salvage this total disaster. During the 1st annual Golden Raspberry Awards “Saturn 3” was nominated for Worst Picture, Actor and Actress.
“Second-Hand Hearts” (1981) – Hal Ashby
Few filmmakers burned as brightly or briefly as Ashby, an Oscar-winning editor who after making his directorial debut with 1970’s “The Landlord” spent the rest of the seventies making a string of unbroken, solid-gold classics: “Harold And Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound For Glory,” “Coming Home” and “Being There.” Then almost as abruptly, Ashby went off the rails, his increasing ‘eccentricity’ and drug use contributing to one of the sadder career troughs in Hollywood history. The little-seen “Second-Hand Hearts”, which was held up by nearly three years of delays, marked the turning point. A firmly ’70s-flavored road movie about Barbara Harris’ widow and her new husband Robert Blake traveling to reclaim her children from her in-laws, it takes the off-beat vibe and loose feel of Ashby’s best work and turns the dials up to eleven, ending up with an undoubted mess. Perhaps there was a better version before Ashby got lost in the weeds (there were conflicts with the financiers, but more importantly Ashby lost heart in the project over the long post-production process), but it doesn’t help the tragedy of the next decade of Ashby’s career. Fired from “Tootsie” shortly before production, the few films he made afterwards were compromised and disappointing, culminating in the sadly generic Jeff Bridges-starring Lawrence Block adaptation “8 Million Ways To Die.”
“Skidoo” (1968) – Otto Preminger
A cinematic equivalent of growing a ponytail in old age, “Skidoo” was Hollywood veteran Preminger’s attempt to show he was down with the Swinging Sixties. To say that it didn’t work is to put it mildly, but it’s nevertheless an utterly fascinating train wreck all the same. The film centers on retired hitman Jackie Gleason who’s tasked by his boss ‘God’ (Groucho Marx in his final film role) with bumping off potential turncoat Mickey Rooney, who’s holed up in a futuristic Alcatraz. The film takes in hippies, free love and LSD: there’s a lengthy trip sequence and the whole film has a slightly frazzled feel, particularly a borderline experimental opening and closing credits sung (!) by cast member Harry Nilsson. Preminger (then aged 63) was aiming for the gonzo feel of Richard Lester or “Easy Rider,” but it’s pretty apparent that he’d rather set himself on fire than talk to an actual hippie or take a hallucinogen, and so there’s a skeptical, judgmental feel to the movie that prevents it from ever letting its freak flag fly. The director’s further undone by his cast, made up of 60% aging comedians, 10% Rat Pack members, 20% of Preminger’s fellow villains from the “Batman” TV series (in which he’d played Mr. Freeze) and 10% teen heartthrobs, none of whom seem especially comfortable with the material. And yet, like an aged relative attempting to do the ‘Single Ladies’ dance at Thanksgiving, you can’t. Stop. Watching. It.
“Toys” (1992) – Barry Levinson
“We have a tradition of whimsy here,” says Robin Williams at one point in Levinson’s “Toys.” Yeah, no fucking kidding, Robin. The “Rain Man” helmer’s most spectacular misfire is a truly strange, ill-conceived fantasy treatise, like being told off by Willy Wonka for four hours for playing video games, that quite rightly proved to be a giant flop but isn’t entirely without interest. The film sees toy magnate Donald O’Connor dying and leaving his factory not to his man-child son (Williams), but to his military fanatic brother played by Michael Gambon, kicking off a corporate conflict that sees Gambon attempting to push the company to make more military toys. The film’s milieu is lovingly realized, with production design and effects that still wow two decades on, but Levinson’s preachy parable of a script, childlike but barely even attempting to engage with actual kids, is an absolute chore to sit through. Though it feels churlish to say so after the star’s untimely passing last year, Williams’ performance ranks with his turn in “Patch Adams” as being among his most unbearably sentimental and irritating. Despite Levinson’s message, the film’s most intersting elements come from the military side, from Gambon’s unexpectedly nuanced performance as the bad guy to the surprising prescience of the film’s predictions about military drones. Maybe we should have listened to Levinson, but then he only has himself to blame for putting that message across so poorly.
“The Wiz” (1978) – Sidney Lumet
Whenever Lumet left New York, his films could feel unmoored, out of place or uneven, and while 1978’s musical “The Wiz,” was set in and around a magical Big Apple, this major detour for Lumet just didn’t have enough grittiness to anchor him. 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 Nipsy Russell as The Tinman and Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion. Composed in a variety of bland wide master shots, Lumet never seems comfortable during the musical numbers, and while Russell, Ross and Richard Pryor as the Wiz(ard) are diverting, Joel Schumacher’s script is totally enervating. Even 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 — it’s marginally charming in spots — it’s certainly not Lumet’s best work and would remain the only pure genre exercise the filmmaker would tackle in his career. But while a commercial and critical flop, the film still managed to earn itself four Academy Awards nominations.
“Village of the Damned” (1995) – John Carpenter
Carpenter had considerable artistic success when he remade the hoary sci-fi film “The Thing From Another World” into the balls-to-the-walls “The Thing.” He probably figured that he could pull that trick off again, borrowing from 1960’s “Village of the Damned” for this 1995 remake. He figured wrong. The movie has a killer premise (which originated in the 1957 science fiction novel “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham), and who doesn’t love it when the good guys have to massacre children for the good of mankind? Problem is, here you just want everyone to die (the decidedly B-rate cast is anchored by Christopher Reeve with Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill in support). 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, which doesn’t quite give the desired effect of otherworldly terror. For a man who in the previous decade defined nightmares, this effectively signaled the end of one of filmmaking’s premiere visual stylists.
“Wolf” (1994) – Mike Nichols
When Nichols passed away late last year, it was an opportunity to rediscover his astonishing canon of film work. But while he’d made his name with well-observed dramas and comedies, he dabbled in genre a couple of times, but always to diluted effect. Following a minor stumble with the sappy “Regarding Henry,” Nichols delivered this frankly odd werewolf story starring Jack Nicholson (who, ok, has pretty much trademarked the word “wolfish”) and Michelle Pfeiffer. The problem with “Wolf” is that it isn’t a werewolf picture, and watching it gives the unpleasant impression (when it give any impression at all) of Nichols trying to ram the square peg of his interpersonal dramedy impulses into the round hole of a barking-at-the-moon horror. Because what we really want to know about werewolves is… can they thrive in the corporate world? This film can charitably be called a darkly comic psychodrama, but it’s sadly neither very funny nor psychologically insightful nor terribly dramatic. Nichols would bounce back up (and down) several times over, but this was the first true outlier in an eclectic, oftentimes brilliant career.
“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 Antonioni was bound to lose his balance, and falter he did with his romanticized, let’s-fight-the-man counter-culture fiasco “Zabriskie Point.” Hiring two flat unknowns who can’t act (Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin) to play hippie lovers on the run and featuring trippy original music by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia plus cuts by The Rolling Stones and John Fahey, its musical hipness was never enough to save a sluggish screenplay (written by committee, one writer being Sam Shepard) and deeply 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 —because bourgeois, man! 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
Boorman’s ’70s work included one deconstructed crime classic (“Point Blank”) and one horrifying backwoods thriller (“Deliverance”) before he stumbled hard with his sixth feature “Zardoz.” This sci-fi flick begins with a floating-head prologue from a goofy magician narrator before a gigantic stone god head descends upon a planet of savages and proceeds to barf up rifles, delivering pearls of wisdom like “the gun is good. the penis is evil,” and in effect stars Sean Connery‘s mustache-and-mankini combo, with Charlotte Rampling along in her icy Ramplingesque glory. Written, produced and directed by Boorman, this picture was actually a passion project, and it might have been enough to have landed him in permanent director’s jail if it weren’t for the financial success of “Excalibur” in 1981. Admittedly, the kaleidoscopic visuals, ambitious metaphysical textures and bizarro ending of the last act is impressive, but ultimately, “Zardoz” is indisputably messy; a head-scratching and oftentimes unintentionally funny (but still kind of wonderful) misfire.
Honorable Mentions: We also could have talked about Spike Lee‘s brutally misjudged “Girl 6“; Terry Gilliam‘s almost-unwatchable “Tideland“; Elaine May‘s cult classic “Ishtar“; “Honky Tonk Freeway” from the unlikely source of John Schlesinger“; Robert Wise‘s “Star Trek The Motion Picture“; Howard Hawks‘ “Rio Lobo“; John Huston‘s take on “Annie“; Tony Scott‘s totally bonkers “Domino;” and perhaps the mother of them Michael Cimino‘s “Heaven’s Gate,” but we did a whole related sub-feature there: Critical Reassessment: ‘Heaven’s Gate’ And 11 More Films That Have Been Reconsidered Over Time.
That’s without mentioning Paul Verhoeven‘s “Showgirls“; Frank Darabont’s “The Majestic“; Ang Lee‘s “Hulk“; Wong Kar-Wai‘s “My Blueberry Nights“; or Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Good German.” Anything else that fits into this category? Let us know below.