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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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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.

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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