Tag Archives: Flop

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE SPIRIT (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Frank Miller

FEATURING: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, , Jaime King, Dan Lauria, Stana Katic

PLOT: When the villainous Octopus terrorizes Central City in pursuit of an ancient elixir that will give him godlike powers, The Spirit–heroic guardian of the city–is there to foil his plans.

Still from The Spirit (2008)

COMMENTS: In the opening scenes of The Spirit, the central character delivers a monologue about his mission as he vaults through the city, a black silhouette swinging and somersaulting off the tops of the buildings, with only a pair of titanium white-soled Chuck Taylors and a rippling vermilion necktie to distinguish him. Here is that monologue in full:

“My city. She’s always there for me. Every lonely night, she’s there for me. She’s not some tarted-up fraud, all dressed up like a piece of jailbait. No, she’s an old city, old and proud of her every pock and crack and wrinkle. She’s my sweetheart, my plaything. She doesn’t hide what she is, what she’s made of: sweat, muscle, blood of generations. She sleeps, after midnight and until dawn, only shadows move in the silence. (checks his watch) Damn, I’ve got no time for this. My city screams! She needs me. She is my love. She is my life. And I am her spirit.”

This is but the first of at least half-a-dozen similar monologues scattered throughout the film, because writer/director Frank Miller wants to emulate the narration boxes found in the comic books that are his primary medium. This is not an unworthy goal, but the fact is that those words play better on the page than they do said aloud during a moment of action. And while it’s certainly possible that there’s an actor out there who could pull off reciting dialogue like this, it poses a tremendous challenge, considering that the prose might be best described as “too purple for Prince.” 

Suffice to say, future “Suit” Gabriel Macht is not the person to overcome the limitations of such dialogue. His every effort is labored, trying and failing to weave in elements as disparate as Superman’s moral purity, Batman’s righteous vengeance, Philip Marlowe’s world-weariness, and even a little bit of Han Solo’s roguish charm. But in fairness, with so many styles to play, Macht has the hardest job. The well-pedigreed performers surrounding him only have one style to ape, although they must contend with the same stilted dialogue. Consider Samuel L. Jackson, who is given leave to go full maniacal-laughter bad guy but isn’t given anything to be particularly evil about. (There’s some lip service paid to something about blood found on the Golden Fleece conferring godhood, but far more time is lavished on his role in The Spirit’s origin story, which honestly makes very little sense.) Miller’s screenplay provides little context for the rivalry between Spirit and Octopus, so we’re mainly riding on our goodwill toward Jackson doing his thing, lending some comedy to what would otherwise be gratuitously baroque.   

This problem is particularly acute for the ensemble of actresses whom Miller prizes for their beauty, and gives just enough characterization to get them off his back. Paulson is the stalwart and sexless love interest, Mendes is voluptuous and obsessed with jewels (the genuinely charming Seychelle Gabriel fares better as Mendes’ teenaged past), Vega is all tease and violence, and Katic provides gum-smacking 40s patois. And then there’s Johansson, whose presence here is baffling. She hints at a mercenary soul in a world of true believers, but mainly seems to be here exclusively so Miller can clothe her and Jackson in Nazi uniforms for no reason whatsoever. Characters don’t just lack an arc; they barely even bend.

Miller seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from his earlier outing, Sin City, where co-director Robert Rodriguez adhered religiously to the stark contrasts and sparse coloring of Miller’s original book. Miller holds no such reverence for his forebears, trading the vibrant and varied colors of Will Eisner for his own tinted monochrome and applying the same grittification that made his name in the Batman re-think “The Dark Knight Returns.” It feels like a bad match. The result is sometimes visually intriguing, but never compelling as a story.

The Spirit is finally a vanity project, Miller using his new-found access to moviemaking as a platform for his style. But while he bends film to his needs, he hasn’t let the demands of the medium bend him at all. So determined to make a movie look like one of his comic books, he’s made one where the story is convoluted, the characters are two-dimensional, the comedy is leaden, and the dialogue is obtuse. I hate to break it to him, but I have no time for this. My city screams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind… The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as ‘just plain damn weird,’ a phrase apropos of the movie itself.” – Chad Ossman, Thinking Out Loud

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE KEEP (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Michael Mann

FEATURING: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: A Nazi regiment unwisely establishes a base inside the keep of a Romanian castle where an otherworldly beast has been imprisoned for the safety of humanity.

Still from The Keep (1983)

COMMENTS: Wanting to cleanse my palette after my last encounter with Nazis, I figured it would be fun to watch them get slaughtered by a supernatural force even more evil than themselves. What I forgot to reckon with was Michael Mann, a man who walks eagerly into grey spaces. To be clear, dead Nazis haven’t lost their appeal. It’s just that no one comes out of The Keep smelling like a rose. 

Mann has always been interested in the bad things that decent people do in defense of some greater good, usually accompanied by moody visuals and moodier music. In that sense, The Keep fits right into his CV. We’ve got pure bad guys in the form of a Nazi platoon that sets up camp in a Carpathian castle, but the forces aligned against them are a disparate bunch: Molasar, an ancient demon trapped behind silver crosses and a talisman; the amazingly named Glaeken Trismegestus, a kind of knight-errant tasked with ensuring Molasar never emerges from this dark prison; and Dr. Cuza, a Jewish academic sprung from a concentration camp to help the Nazis translate ancient languages, who decides that freeing Molasar will save his people. So our bad guys are plenty bad, but the enemy of our enemy might not be our friend.

The stage is set for a real philosophical showdown, but  Paramount was looking for a horror-thriller, and when the production went way over budget, the studio declined to provide additional funds. To complicate things further, the visual effects supervisor died two weeks into post-production, leaving behind no instruction and no means of accomplishing the effects-heavy finale Mann intended. Finally, Mann turned in a cut nearly three and a half hours long, promptly getting himself thrown off the project. The studio hacked off about ninety minutes and, following a terrible preview, applied classic Hollywood logic and shaved off another thirty. The final product is, predictably, disjointed and open-ended, with characters appearing and disappearing randomly, a significantly truncated romance, and the entire thing wrapping up in a flurry of anticlimax. (Amusingly, an entire battalion of Nazis is wiped out while we’re watching their commander in another room.) It’s hard to argue that a horror film the length of The Godfather Part II is a good idea, but the shortened version is sorely lacking in some of the most critical areas, such as suspense, or clear linear progression.

The elements that work best in The Keep are the ones that go gleefully beyond the pale. Electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream provide a wonderfully anachronistic score that works despite itself. The production design by John Box and the art direction of Alan Tomkins and Herbert Westbrook are suitably evocative and foreboding. And best of all, the acting is top-notch baroque insanity. Byrne is relentlessly nasty in classic Nazi fashion, positioned opposite the war-weary pragmatism that Prochnow brings over undiluted from Das Boot (1981). McKellen uses the full power of his stage-acting experience, bellowing in a bizarre American accent (reportedly at Mann’s instigation) that eventually becomes a John Huston impression. Watson makes no impression at all. And then, in the role of the enigmatic stranger who is engaged in a millennia-old battle against evil, there’s affable everyman Scott Glenn. He’s horribly miscast, but somehow he gets far entirely on the basis of the asynchrony. The story may not make sense, but at least everyone goes for it.

The best thing that The Keep has going for it is its spectacle, and that suffers from being visibly undercut, far from the poetic grandeur its auteur intended. It’s hard to say if the film Mann had in mind–a blend of arty philosophy and purple grandiosity –would have worked. But it’s clear from what remains that it would have lacked for neither.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Keep is a weird movie and I mean that in the best possible way. On the negative end of the spectrum, there are too many characters and the film is often muddled and slow-moving. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with some rather fine monster-mashing and other assorted general nonsense.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

(This movie was nominated for review by purplefig. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Brian De Palma

FEATURING: Tom Smothers, John Astin, Katharine Ross, Orson Welles

PLOT: At his wit’s end in the fast-paced business world, a dissatisfied middle manager chucks his job to become a traveling tap-dancing magician.

Still from Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)

COMMENTS: The passing of Tom Smothers brought many recollections of the genuinely transgressive variety show he and his brother Dick assembled to ride the waves of the counterculture and tweak the humorless establishment. It’s part of the legend that the stuffed shirts at CBS seized upon the first opportunity to cancel the show and presumably serve the whim of newly inaugurated paranoiac president Richard Nixon. Smothers would go down in history as a First Amendment martyr, and although the brothers would eventually resume their successful career as comedians and folk-performance parodists (your reviewer still cherishes catching their act as an adolescent and meeting Tom after the show), they never again saw the lofty heights they reached when they were tweaking censors and highlighting America’s distaste for the Vietnam War.

That fall from fame was not for lack of trying. About a year after “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” got yanked off the schedule, Tom decided to take a stab at movie stardom. Get To Know Your Rabbit looks like an ideal vehicle: a satire on the numbing effect of American corporate culture. The leading role seems tailor-made to take advantage of Smothers’ carefully developed stage persona as overwhelmed and bewildered by the world, as well as his offstage passion for justice. The producers also saw an opportunity to provide a Hollywood debut for Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself with a pair of subversive comedies, Greetings and Hi, Mom! (Our Alfred Eaker would describe De Palma’s work here as “blatantly avant-garde”.) Add in a small part for Katharine Ross (hot off the success of The Graduate) and a key role for one of De Palma’s heroes, Orson Welles (who, as we’ve already seen, was apparently willing to do any film that would let him perform some magic), and this thing can’t possibly miss.

It missed, and badly. The shoot was evidently a misery; Smothers, a controlling figure on his TV show, disapproved of many of De Palma’s choices and eventually refused to turn up for re-takes. Welles also disappointed the young filmmaker, refusing to learn his lines. Eventually, Warner Bros. fired De Palma and recut the film using discarded footage and new scenes, including a much milder ending than the one the ousted director preferred. Finally, they sat on the film for two years, throwing it into theaters for a quickie release to be rid of the thing. (An alternate strategy for the studio was still decades away at the time.) Smothers would head back to the stage, while De Palma would mostly abandon both comedy and the major studios in favor of ian thrillers and suspenseful horror shows. (De Palma avoided Warner Bros. in particular, returning only after two decades to direct The Bonfire of the Vanities, which did Continue reading CAPSULE: GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT (1972)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: SPHERE (1998)

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DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

FEATURING: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, ,

Still from Sphere (1998)

PLOT: A team of scientists is dispatched to the middle of the Pacific to examine a mysterious spacecraft found on the ocean floor.

COMMENTS: An unexpected side effect of the success of Jurassic Park was the discovery by Hollywood studios that Michael Crichton had written other books. Several, in fact, and most of them characterized by (a) a deep interest in the intersection of advanced technology and human hubris and (b) shoddy writing and lazy characterization. (I devoured his books in my fresh-out-of-college years, so I readily acknowledge my role in the problem.) Their high-concept plots and sci-fi trappings were catnip for deep-pocketed producers, and soon the market was flooded with Crichton adaptations: Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, The 13th Warrior (from his novel Eaters of the Dead), his dino-sequel The Lost World, an old unproduced screenplay called Twister, and yes, Sphere went into production in short order.

Sphere has all the elements you need for a big box office smash: big stars, a big budget, and a Big Dumb Object to serve as the MacGuffin. It also had huge story problems, so big that Levinson and Hoffman were able to go off and shoot Wag the Dog during a break in the production, and so extensive that the final credits cite one writer as having “adapted” the book while another duo is listed as responsible for the actual screenplay. The result is why we’re here: it’s a classic mishmash of sci-fi tropes and action set pieces, but executed most oddly.

One reason that things feel so off with Sphere is that the basic story—an unexplained thing needs explaining—is free of suspense. Since research rarely makes for great blockbuster cinema, we start getting twists and turns thrown at us with a taste of every plot device imaginable. Time travel, temporal paradox, black holes, alien communication, mind control, the manifestation of dreams. Meanwhile, character is ladled out in small dollops of exposition in a belated effort to give the actors something to play. Hoffman hates snakes, Jackson hates squid. Hoffman and Stone were once lovers, and Stone once had suicidal tendencies. Jackson and Schreiber are fierce academic competitors, Schreiber is embarrassed by his glasses. Coyote is and always has been an officious, loudmouthed idiot. Everyone seems to be playing that improv game where you’re handed a piece of paper with a character trait mid-scene, and you have to backpedal furiously to justify the lay-on.

When there is drama, it’s incredibly silly. One naval officer (Queen Latifah, stunningly underused) is killed by an enormous swarm of jellyfish, which the film tells us should be no cause for alarm, so she has to flail about as though under attack from a flock of bats to gin up the excitement. Later, several of the crew are, oh, let’s just call it “attacked” by an onslaught of falling sea eggs, which frankly look like condoms being used to smuggle drugs, so you just have to take it on faith that this underwater ticker tape parade is, in fact, terrifying. Walls shake, coffee cups fall over, sirens wail, and Dustin Hoffman shrieks at the sight of an eel, but nothing actually happens.

Some of the most effective scares are derived from the notion that nothing happening is significantly more unsettling than flurries of activity. Jackson gets to play against type by not commanding the room with his stentorian delivery, and the film gets considerable mileage out of his eerie calm in the face of chaos. But sometimes that stillness is carried to such a degree that it feels like a glitch, especially when Elliot Goldenthal’s hyperactive score is working so hard to generate suspense. 

Throughout, characters change on a dime, usually to generate tension, a late reveal about the identity of a character provides the requisite shocking twist without making a lick of sense, and Levinson deploys every kind of distraction he can think of (including a hilariously overwrought attempt to manufacture horror out of a cabinet full of books), probably because he knows that the moment anything gets explained, all the air will go out of the story.  But there’s nothing he can do to cover up the truth of a script written by committee and pieced together from ideas either unfinished or shoehorned in to generate conflict. It’s a ridiculous mess, and not even a very fun one. 

Sphere is actually the book that helped me give up my interest in Crichton, thanks in large part to its comically lame finale. I’m delighted to report that the book’s ridiculous ending is carried over to the film fully intact. There’s a logic to it, but it’s dramatically disastrous, as it all genuinely adds up to nothing. Naturally, the film sells it as a triumph (accompanied by a dramatically inexplicable special effect and another Goldenthal fanfare). Sphere ends as it begins: all wet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I was utterly confused by the end of Sphere. And equally dispirited… This project had all the resources to make a fine film, and it squandered them all, for want of a cogent screenplay.”–Kathi Maio, “Science Fiction & Fantasy” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ry, who observes, “it has really strange dialogue, like their timing is off or something.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Zach Helm

FEATURING: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills

PLOT: Mr. Magorium, who has run his magical toy store for nearly three centuries, prepares for his imminent departure from the earthly realm, but his plans to hand the reins over to store clerk and aspiring composer Mahoney are endangered by her ambivalence, the suggestions of a straight-laced accountant, and the protests of the store itself.

Still from Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (1993)

COMMENTS: From Dictionary.com:

whim·​sy [ˈ(h)wim-zee] n. 1: capricious humor or disposition; extravagant, fanciful, or excessively playful expression: “a play with lots of whimsy.” 2: an odd or fanciful notion. 3: anything odd or fanciful; a product of playful or capricious fancy: “a whimsy from an otherwise thoughtful writer.”

Zach Helm has an undisguised interest in finding joy amidst the frustrations of life. His screenplay for Stranger Than Fiction focused on a person who has spent his whole life in the grey and comes late to discovering the beauty of leading a more colorful existence. Here, making his directorial debut, he presents a world drenched in color and offers us a character who revels in it, until she doesn’t, and has to find her way back. The former film looked wistfully at the joyful world that was lost. This time around, we need to be right in the heart of that joy, and Helm’s weapon of choice is whimsy. Truckloads of it.

Our setting, identified in the title, is a sort of mad mashup of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. It’s a hyperactive place, perpetually bustling with children who have somehow pried themselves away from their PlayStations so that they can indulge in the unexpected surprises of the toyshop. The toys come to life. Any plaything you desire can be found in a great big book. Bouncy balls are always on the lookout for an escape opportunity. There is always something going on, so much so that the movie is its own Easter egg generator. It’s the kind of a place where dinosaur skeletons peek out the window, Playmobil figures do actual construction, and Kermit the Frog does his weekly shopping. (That’s Kermit himself, looking strangely embarrassed to be stared at, or maybe just to be in the movie.) It’s fun, and then it’s fun, and ultimately it’s FUN, DAMMIT. 

All this is overseen by an enormously affected Hoffman. With eyebrows to rival Thufir Hawat and an Ed Wynn-style lisp that would be mincing under any other circumstances, he’s carefully constructed to be eccentric. Sometimes that’s refreshing, best exemplified by his equanimous attitude toward the impending end of his life. He’s not at all cynical, but eager to indulge in pleasures large and small right to the very end. On the other hand, he’s liberally draped with quirks: wearing loud patterns, bantering with his zebra roommate, and obsessed with hot dog buns. This can have mixed results: I groaned Continue reading IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM (2007)