Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Great flicks that bombed

As a general rule, if something is really popular with the entertainment-consuming public, it's no guarantee that it's any good, but if it's unpopular then it probably is pretty bad. There are exception to the latter. Here are five movies I liked and would recommend that bombed at the box office for various reasons. Starting from earliest to latest, my picks are:

*****The Last Valley (1971). Starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharrif with a screenplay by James Clavel, years before he became famous for Tai Pan and Shogun.

This is a rare example of a good thinking man's movie. During the Thirty Years War a philosopher (Sharrif) wanders through the Germanies and finds himself in an isolated valley. He's woken up by a company of mercenary soldiers lead by a Captain (Michael Caine), who cursorily questions him then tells him to make his peace with God before they kill him.

Thinking quickly he points out that the valley is the richest he's ever seen, and that if they bring the army there, the army will eat for a week and starve during the winter nonetheless. He proposes that the soldiers occupy the village, lure the villagers out of hiding and make some sort of deal with them to stay and survive the winter. The Captain asks, "What about those who don't want to?" "Get rid of them" the philosopher says. The Captain then immediately turns and kills his second-in-command. "Good ideas are rare."

This sets the stage. Over the next year the soldiers occupy the village and a three-way power struggle between the soldiers, the church and the burgomeister emerges, with the philosopher in the middle. The Captain takes the burgomeister's mistress, who turns out to be a practicing witch. The philosopher falls for a peasant girl. There is mutiny in the ranks which forces the Captain to ally with villagers and so forth. The politics are messy and complicated, people are seldom either wholly admirable - or totally base. The Captain and the philosopher form an unlikely bond, and the philosopher and the burgomeister grope towards the idea of the citizen-soldier.

All this adds up to the most convincing period movie I've ever seen.

So why'd it bomb?

Well, aside from considerations of promotion, it's just not possible to make a movie about the Thirty Years War that isn't horribly depressing. The costumes, the action and the sheer visual beauty of the setting couldn't change that. And, there were a lot of references to historical events, such as the sack of Magdeburg that were really obscure. Perhaps the fact that the movie had nothing good to say about organized religion may have had something to do with it as well.

***Popeye (1980). Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duval and Ray Walston. This movie was plagued with production problems and evidently the whole cast was ill with La Turista throughout filming on location in Sicily. After filming it was found that Williams' dialog mumbled around his pipe was unintelligible and had to be dubbed over. Nonetheless, this succeeded brilliantly at translating Popeye cartoons to the big screen. Williams and Duval were Popeye and Olive Oyl to the life.

So why'd it bomb?

I dunno. Translating a cartoon of that kind, where the physical figures are not realistically portrayed, is dicey at best. Maybe Popeye's time had passed. Post WWII Popeye cartoons were never as good as the earlier ones in my opinion. The squint-eyed sailorman may just have been too old - he does date back to the pre-WWI era. Nonetheless, it was a lovely trip to see the hero of my childhood again so I could say goodbye.

***The Razor's Edge (1984). This remake of the 1946 Tyrone Power version starred Bill Murray and Therese Russell. Murray had the juevos to reinterpret a Tyrone Power role, at a time when his movie exposure was entirely in comedies. And folks, in many ways he did a better job. Power's version took things very seriously, Murray employed the light touch pretty much throughout - but that's kind of the point. Enlightenment, wisdom, whatever you want to call it, is closely bound up with a sense of humor. Ask any Zen master or Sufi guide.


My favorite scene is when Murray is in an ashram in the Himalayas and the head guru sends him on a winter retreat to a remote hut in the mountains to meditate. Now in the Power version, our hero returns and describes his satori with a rapt face and stirring music playing in the background. With Murray you see the master send him off with enough food, fuel "Oh, and here are some of your favorite books to read" - except there isn't enough fuel. As the fire gutters down, Murray is reduced to burning his books page by page. And with no dialog or background music, just the look on his face, you see him achieving enlightenment page by page.

So why'd it bomb?

Tragicomedy is hard to pull off. Murray saves his best friend but fails to save his girlfriend who life has kicked just too damned hard. Maybe it was too soon for him to branch out of comedy and audiences couldn't take him seriously yet. Like Robin Williams he's done a great job at drama since then, but this was his first outing.

And maybe it's like the end of the movie, when the friend he's saved (among other ways by refusing to steal his wife) says, "You're the best friend I've got" he cracks up and replies "Well guy, that's just the luck of the draw." (Or something to that effect, I need to see this again.)


*****The Name of the Rose (1986). I think most everybody has seen this on TV since its theatrical release. This is a rare example of a Sean Connery vehicle that didn't do well. Connerey plays a monk who journeys with his student/ disciple (I forget the technical Catholic term) to a monastery to engage in a great debate. When he gets there he finds a series of bizarre murders that he must solve with the analytical skills derived from the teachings of Aristotle. And just so you don't miss the Great Detective parallels, his name is William of Baskerville.

This is a great period piece, and they probably saved a lot of money on costumes since most were just monk's robes. The identity of the treasure that prompts the murders, and the subject of the great debate I'll not reveal - I wouldn't deprive you of that pleasure if you haven't seen it. Suffice it to say, it involves fine points of medieval theology - and politics, and shows why other great debates, such as "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" are not so stupid in the context of the time.

So why'd it bomb?

Connery said it was promoted badly and that one poster gave the impression it was a cartoon! It could also be that period pieces are a risky business at best. Whatever the reason, SCA geeks will thank you forever Sean.

**The Last Action Hero (1993). This is probably the one bomb Arnold Schwartzenegger made. Pity, it's the one that had a point to it. And someday somebody is going to realize that Ah-nuld has really great comedic talent. This flick is actually a clever satire of the whole action movie genre. Throughout the fantasy/ action flick a young boy (Austin O'Brian) keeps pointing out how illogical everything around them is. And yet the boy is the one who sees deeper into the genre and tells "Slade" (Arnold) how we really need you, we need our action heroes to help us get through life and all the crap it throws at us.

There's a lot of stuff in here that makes you think. At one point Slade meets the "real" Arnold and his wife Maria. Did I detect a subtle satire on the way the glitterati treat upstart interlopers in the admonitions Maria gives Arnold on how to behave in public? And what a world of meaning there seems to be when "Slade" tells Arnold, "You know I never really liked you. You caused me a lot of pain."

Really fun scene I keep quoting: A trailer for Slade as Hamlet, "There's something rotten in the state of Denmark, and Slade is taking out the trash!" "To be, or not to be? Not to be" lights bomb off his cigar, throws it and machine-guns the place.

Is this a riff on Mel Gibson's Hamlet? Not to mention brilliant self-parody!

So why'd it bomb?

Nobody got it.


  • At 12:35 PM, Blogger Icepick said…

    The Last Action Hero was a great movie, and yes, nobody got it. I saw it opening night with a big crowd, and I seemed to be the only person who got most of the better material. I saw it again that weekend, got more than I did the first time, and saw it a third time in the theaters before it closed.

    Even then, I didn't get everything. That movie really piled on the inside jokes and spoofs. The trailer for Hamlet that you describe happens when the boy starts day-dreaming during class. His teacher is droning on about Hamlet, describing Hamlet as the first action hero. (Which is pretty funny because Hamlet is, of course, all about the inaction.) That's when the boy day-dreams the trailer, with Arnie as Slade playing the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet. What I didn't get was that the teacher was played by Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier's widow and wife of 28 years.

    Frankly, the movie was just too smart for its audience.

    Other great things about that movie:

    Ian McKellen as Death from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

    Tom Noonan playing yet another psycho-killer, and himself

    Professor Toru Tanaka as the Odd-job knock-off

    Anthony Quinn as a malapropism afflicted mobster

    Charles Dance playing Benedict, a fantastic villian; Sample lines: "I have just shot someone, and I did it on purpose." and "Gentlemen. Since you are about to die anyway, I may as well tell you the entire plot. Think of villains Jack. You want Dracula? Dra-cool-la? Hang on, I'll fetch him. Dracula? Huh. I can get King Kong! We'll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprize party for Adolf Hitler, Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we'll have christening for Rosemary's Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they'll be here. They're lining up to get here, and do you know why Jack? Should I tell you why? Hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!"

    And finally, I leave with this great line from the boy Danny Madigan, as played by Austin O'Brien: "Oh, shit! I'm a comedy sidekick! IT'S NOT GONNA WORK!"

    (Sorry for the long comment, but I just couldn't resist.)

  • At 5:40 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Damn, now I'm really going to have to see it again.

    So how come nobody got it? Were they just not expecting subtlety from Arnie? Was it something like when Clark Gable played Robert Parnell and had audiences rolling in the aisles at his death scene?

  • At 2:29 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    Name Of The Rose, of course, is from the book by the otherwise appalling (IMO) Umberto Eco.
    I always assumed that the William bit was also a reference: to William of Occam-he of the razor, otherwise known as `least hypothesis', which certainly seemed to apply to the detectoring.

    The book and film also had a wonderful technique for murder which is then spoofed in Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay.

  • At 8:18 PM, Blogger Icepick said…

    Steve, the problem was that dumb young males (the kind of guys that would go see Predator again and again, which is to say me and my friends) wouldn't get references to Amadeus or The Seventh Seal, and the people that would get those kind of references wouldn't go to an Arnie movie in the first place. Also, that latter group might not understand that LAH was WAY over the top for an action movie (at least at that time), nor perhaps would they likely appreciate a movie that relies on lines like "Leo the Fart is going to pass gas one last time."

    My friends and I were just better educated and/or movie buffs, so we got the references. But the typical 16 year-old male? You might get him interested in Ingrid Bergman, but probably not Ingmar. It was simply a movie with no natural audience.

  • At 8:39 AM, Blogger gilmoure@gmail.com said…

    I've seen all of these, except for The Last Valley (sounds really good!). LAH is a favorite of my wife and I; we really like all the movie references they put in it. I can see why it didn't do well, not being marketed correctly (how many people enjoy cheesy action films and independent stuff?).


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