Tag Archives: Flop

28*. WALKER (1987)

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“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s commentary

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ed Harris, , , , Peter Boyle,  Marlee Matlin

PLOT: Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hires William Walker, a mercenary and adventurer fresh off a failed campaign to establish an independent state in Mexico, to take a small army to Nicaragua to join their civil war on the side of the Democrats. Assembling a ragtag band of disreputable men lacking better prospects, Walker takes his army to Nicaragua, where he has unexpected success, driving back the Legitimist army and arriving in the capital of Grenada as a liberator. Initially accepting a position leading the army, Walker grows power mad and seizes the country’s Presidency.

Still from Walker (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Walker was a real historical figure and, ridiculous anachronisms and obvious fantasy scenes aside, Walker describes the general direction of his career. Many scenes were drawn from his diaries and letters and other historical sources. (One major change was the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who did not sponsor Walker’s original expedition, but was involved in his downfall.)
  • The practice of American adventurers invading Latin American countries with private armies was surprisingly common in the 19th century, so much so that it earned its own name: filibustering. William Walker was the most successful filibusterer of all time. He somehow took control of Nicaragua with an army initially comprised of a mere 60 men.
  • Rudy Wurlitzer’s previous screenplays included the bizarre post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), ‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Western Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973).
  • Cox made Walker in the same year as Straight to Hell, a quickie scraped together after plans to film a punk rock concert in Nicaragua fell apart.
  • The movie was filmed while the C.I.A..-backed Contras were waging a guerilla war against the ruling Sandinistas. Cox filmed corpses from a Contra massacre and included the footage in the film’s end credits.
  • Universal Studios gave Cox his largest budget ever, six million dollars, to make what they hoped might be a prestige biopic, or even a hit. They did not expect the deranged, anachronistic, incendiary film Cox delivered, and after poorly-received test screenings they buried the film. Cox never directed in Hollywood again.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to cite one of the many iconic scenes of Walker, rifle in hand, striding confidently in the foreground in his smart Puritan-black suit while mayhem erupts in the background. We instead selected the surreal image of Walker striding confidently across the beach in the background, while in the foreground two of his men are being punished by being buried up to their necks in the sand with a tarantula crawling over one’s head, while their overseer enjoys a Marlboro and Coke.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Smoking during tarantula torture; 19th century helicopter evacuation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by (if he was obsessed with politics instead of sex and Catholicism). That’s Walker in a nutshell.


Original trailer for Walker

COMMENTS: Walker drops its strangeness on its viewers gradually. Continue reading 28*. WALKER (1987)

CAPSULE: THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003)

Beware

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“I’m not so good with the rhyming.”  – The Cat (Mike Myers)

DIRECTED BY: Bo Welch

FEATURING: Mike Myers, , Spencer Breslin, ,

PLOT: Two children left alone at home encounter a human-sized talking cat who leads them on a series of wacky and destructive misadventures.

Still from Cat in the Hat (2003)

COMMENTS:

Shall I spin you a tale of a movie gone wrong?
Of 82 minutes that feel three days long?
Then I’ll tell unto you, just right there where you’ve sat
Of the travesty known as The Cat in the Hat.

‘Twas a gray day in Hollywood, no dreams to dream,
When one junior executive cooked up a scheme:
“What we need’s some IP we can plunder for cash.
It can be mediocre, can even be trash!
All we need is the title; who cares if it’s rank?
They’ll fill up the theaters, and we’ll all make bank.”

“You’re so right,” said his colleagues, “it’s easy as pie.
For familiar content, we won’t even try.”
So those vultures considered what might be of use
And decided to dig up our dear Dr. Seuss.

“We’ve done it before,” they all cried. “It’s a cinch.
We grossed two-sixty mill on that trash heap, The Grinch.
Which proves that we needn’t pretend like we care. No,
That garbage still vacuumed up mucho dinero.”

The honchos began to assemble the parts
That would demonstrate all of their filmmaking smarts.
A novice director? Sure, that’ll be fine.
“We’ll pick some guy known for production design.”

“And a script?” a small voice piped up. “I took a look
And it might be a challenge to translate a book
That’s so short. We’ll get ripped by the Dr. Seuss nerds;
It’s one thousand six hundred and twenty-six words.”

“Damn the length!” came the riposte. “Damn logic and plot.
For those minor objections,” they said, “we care not.
Once we get a big star, we’ll have no cause for worry.
His comedy chops will fix things in a hurry.”
So they looked at the feline displayed on the front
And decided to try an uproarious stunt.
Tall and thin, long of limb, with a wide, gleeful eye…
“Mike Myers!” they cried. “There’s no doubt he’s our guy!”

And perhaps that is how we arrived at this place,
At a movie so lacking in wit and in grace.

Continue reading CAPSULE: THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003)

CAPSULE: SLIPSTREAM (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven M. Lisberger

FEATURING: , Bob Peck, , Kitty Aldridge, Eleanor David

PLOT: In a future devastated by a geophysical catastrophe, a two-bit hood steals a bounty hunter’s prey in hopes of a big score.

Still from Slipstream (1989)

COMMENTS: There is an alternate universe wherein three of the biggest names in the cult of science fiction—Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, TRON writer-director Steve Lisberger, and the legendary Mark Hamill himself—all found a renewed life in the cinema thanks to an out-of-nowhere box office smash about a future world where a steady round-the-world wind has upended human existence.

Yeah. Back in our universe, that movie was a flop that barely saw the light of day. Kurtz was bankrupted, Lisberger would never direct another feature, and Hamill would retreat into the world of voice work, rebuilding his reputation over the next three decades. The film itself (reportedly) slipped into the public domain, which does at least make it easier for us all to summon up a screening and see if we can figure out where all this potential went so wrong.

The story seems like a good place to start. The post-apocalypse summoned up by Tony Kayden’s screenplay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Whatever disaster the shifting winds wreaked upon the planet left some people huddled in dusty hovels, to be sure. But why would planes thrive while cars (and even carts) have vanished? How are there diners? Compact discs? Keypad locks? Why is Bob Peck on the run in a suit that makes him look like a London stockbroker? Is it really a career option in the detritus of a wind-related apocalypse to dream of hanging up a shingle for your own hot air balloon agency? And that’s long before our heroes take an odd turn into a bunker/library/country club that just… is.

The casting doesn’t help, either. Mark Hamill—God love him—just isn’t made to play grizzled and hard-bitten, and his tough-guy dialogue sits uncomfortably in his mouth. Bill Paxton, sporting a Robert Plant hairdo, tries to portray a desperate mercenary while still exuding his signature goofy affability. (In fact, a whole lot of people in this movie are trying to do their best Han Solo impersonations and coming up short.) And then there are the cameos. Slipstream manages to land two of the decade’s Best Actor Academy Award winners—Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham—and then fails to do anything with them in their allotted 3 minutes of screen time.

What’s most frustrating about Slipstream is that there is so much talent in service of a story that literally goes nowhere. (Lisberger is quoted as saying the film is essentially a road movie with planes, but the only destination is indeterminate and quickly jettisoned, so we’re just really wandering from cave to cave.) The film’s English and Turkish locations are suitably alien and intriguing, and they are captured with some lovely aerial cinematography. There’s Hamill’s genuinely cool-looking plane. And every now and then, the story stumbles across an idea—some people now worship the wind as a deity—or an image—a man strapped into a kite buffeted by terrifying gusts—that hints at something grander. But it never gets there. Instead, the few stakes there are feel listless and empty. And you can tell the filmmakers know it, because they’ve made the great Elmer Bernstein work overtime to provide some juice in the score that can’t be found on the screen. (When not trying to generate suspense, it pieces together elements borrowed from other Bernstein scores, from The Magnificent Seven to Heavy Metal to Ghostbusters.)

Time and again, we get a tantalizing glimpse of the inventive movie they thought they had. It’s like being invited on a treasure hunt, and your host shows you the cool map he found and the shiny doubloon that proves the treasure is real, and so you search and search, only to come up empty. That’s Slipstream. No treasure. Only hot air.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It never quite gels into a complete whole, but also never lacks for ambition…  There’s a lot of weird aerial imagery that’s much appreciated if too oft repeated… There’s a cheesy core to this film that shoots for awe and wonder more than action and doom.”–Ed Travis, Cinapse (DVD)

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action[efn_note]An animated sequel, Journey Back to Oz, was released in 1974.[/efn_note] sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MYSTERY MEN (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Kinka Usher

FEATURING: Ben Stiller, , Hank Azaria, , Tom Waits, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush

PLOT: Captain Amazing has been captured by the villainous Casanova Frankenstein, and Champion City is in danger. Do the Shoveler, Mr Furious, and Blue Raja have what it takes to save the day? The answer: not quite.

COMMENTS: It isn’t that strange that a star-studded action comedy would be directed by someone with a career in commercials—commercials and music videos (essentially commercials for music) often act as a springboard into “real” cinema. What is a bit strange is that Kinka Usher, the director of this muddled cult classic, remarked, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts than deal with all this nonsense.” This lack of passion makes Mystery Men incredibly uneven. But Usher brings with him considerable visual flair, so at least all this unevenness is interesting to look at and constantly in motion. Even as the many saggy sections sag, the viewer can take comfort in the fact that the storyteller will move on with due haste.

The action starts immediately… right after soaring pan over the retro-futuristic “Champion City”, accompanied by a Danny Elfman-esque score, established a “superhero” vibe. The Red Eyes, a low-rent gang of larcenous thugs, crash a senior citizens’ ball, robbing the guests of watches, diamonds, “wigs and toupés”, and even false teeth. Enter our heroes: the Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr Furious (Ben Stiller, who was in every other movie released in those days), and Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). After a display of middling skills, they fail just in time for Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) to save the day.

The script devotes more detail to Mystery Men‘s backdrop than to the characters themselves, and while this provides a grandeur to the superhero fun-poking, it also leaves the characters woefully underdeveloped. (It’s almost as if an entire comic book series doesn’t translate well into a single feature film.) The huge cityscapes, which hint at a world-culture smorgasbord, alternate with set pieces that play like sketch comedy bits strung together: the sub-heroes quibble in the diner, the sub-heroes host a recruitment barbecue, and so forth. Macy, Stiller, Azaria, et al. each seem to simultaneously hog the spotlight while also being spread too thinly.

This isn’t even a close call for our list, but the peripherals made it worth a look. The eccentric performances from Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Tom Waits all sync nicely with the tone that should have dominated. “Work-a-day super heroes”, though a cute premise, results in work-a-day personalities, and what Champion City (and Mystery Men) needs is a heavy dose of straight-faced absurdity. Kinnear and Rush play off each-other marvelously, and their scenes are a hoot. Waits needs only to be onscreen to give you a dose of strange.

Though failing at being weird is forgivable, failing as a comedy is less so. The biggest joke comes early, and works only because of meta-humor. Ricky Jay, as Captain Amazing’s agent, chides his client after the disappointing Red Eye bust, “Look, I’m a publicist—not a magician.” Some more self-awareness (and a little less Smash Mouth) could have saved Mystery Men from the “cult classic” film heap.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Mystery Men has moments of brilliance waving their arms to attract attention in a sea of dreck. It’s a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess, and every once in awhile it generates a big laugh.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times / Rogerebert.com (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chad, who called it “one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)