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When Celebrated Directors Lose The Plot: Interesting Left Turns And Failures In An Auteur's Oeuvre

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 21, 2011 at 6:55AM

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.
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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."

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Robert Zemeckis, Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron Crowe, Brian De Palma, John Frankenheimer, Roman Polanski, Peter Yates, Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger


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