In one of the slyer, cooler, more creative programming themes New York has seen in a while, BAMcinématek has embarked upon of a series called Turkeys for Thanksgiving, in which infamous bombs, flops and box-office turkeys get their time in the spotlight for reconsideration. Or not. It’s up to you! Some of these movies are very much still in contention — many critics and cinephiles have been arguing for their merits for years now, while at least two of them are now widely-acknowledged classics. A couple of them are still getting crapped on pretty hard by most people, probably unfairly, and at least one is objectively very bad… but still a must-see! So yeah, it’s a group of oddballs we got here. What a swell holiday treat. If you’re local, if you’re in town for the holidays, or even if you need a fun poster gallery to look at during family dinner, please take a look at this super-fun line-up!
Friday, November 20th
You’ve got to wonder if it’s the title that threw people at the time. Unless you speak fluent Sumerian, “Ishtar” sounds like pig-Latin. It’s a good comedy word but it’s not an immediately-appealing word, not something that sings like the phrase “cellar door” or the name “Claudia Cardinale.” I guess it’s also fair to suggest that this movie looks like a Hope-and-Crosby road movie, and Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman aren’t the most obvious heirs to that legacy. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd had better luck with the Hope-and-Crosby riff SPIES LIKE US two years prior. But ISHTAR for many years was synonymous with box-office disaster, something that in retrospect seems harsh for a film written and directed by the legendary Elaine May and filmed by APOCALYPSE NOW‘s cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. No way any movie with those credits could be all that bad, no matter what they named it.
I mean, not that it matters too much to Spielberg or anybody else, but this movie has never been under-loved by me. I was too young to see it in theaters, or to care it existed, but by the time I got around to 1941, it was after I’d already seen GHOSTBUSTERS and THE BLUES BROTHERS and ANIMAL HOUSE and TRADING PLACES and SPIES LIKE US and I was eagerly burning through anything and everything I could watch with Belushi and Aykroyd in it. From my advanced age looking back, it’s even more hysterical to me that Warren Oates and Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune were roped into this thing too, but at the time, all I cared about was Belushi and Aykroyd, and while it gives you a whole lot more, it gives you plenty of those guys too. In particular, Belushi is wonderful in this film. It’s my favorite Belushi role. It kills me that we’ll never know what he would have been doing in the decades since he died too young, but I treasure the fact that Belushi got to play the role of Wild Bill Kelso, who’s something like a lost Looney Tunes character come to life. It’s sort of perfect. 1941 has several genuine pleasures, but none as vivid as that one, for me.
Saturday, November 21st
I had a film professor and mentor who argued strongly for the merits of SHOWGIRLS, and I mean pretty much at the time. The argument had nothing to do with the rediscovery since of SHOWGIRLS as some kind of camp classic. It was about the value of SHOWGIRLS as cinema on its own terms, and while I’ve never been all the way on board, there’s ample ammunition there. For one thing, Paul Verhoeven is too intriguingly deranged to be playing the entire thing straight — why do people who now recognize STARSHIP TROOPERS as the savage satire it always was somehow miss the fact that Paul Verhoeven made this movie too? For some reason, people got the joke with ROBOCOP, and eventually they got around to it with STARSHIP TROOPERS, but in SHOWGIRLS, it’s possible Verhoeven dug so deep into the stuff he was poking fun at that people continue to mistake it for more of the same. Additionally, there’s no doubt in my mind that SHOWGIRLS is more substantial visually than most of the Best Picture nominees of the last twenty years. Whatever your mind might try to tell them, your eye is gonna like SHOWGIRLS better than THE KING’S SPEECH. These are motion pictures. These are not filmed plays. Images should matter as much as words, if not more. This is a good-looking movie, and one which could tell a story just as easily with the sound off (which might be considered preferable to some).
Sunday, November 22nd
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Hard to imagine now, since no movie outside of STAR WARS is as culturally ubiquitous, but apparently THE WIZARD OF OZ was not a hit out of the gate. Now three full generations have grown up with the movie and it seems as automatic a part of Americana as baseball or racism. What fascinates me about the popularity of THE WIZARD OF OZ is how truly bizarre it is, when you stop to think about it. It’s an amazingly strange story, but I guess many popular stories are, when you step outside of the instinct of taking them for granted since birth. I always enjoyed the movie well enough, my main point of fascination being the Munchkins (whose ranks include Tod Browning collaborator Harry Earles), but my younger sister and many of our friends were fucking terrified of it. I guess I can see their side of it. When you’re a kid, either you roll with the freakiness of THE WIZARD OF OZ or you find it to be a source of unending fear. It’s sort of like religion that way.
MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947)
This is Chaplin’s adaptation of the French folktale of Bluebeard, the lady-killing aristocrat. It strikes me as odd that I’ve seen the Richard Burton version and not the Chaplin version, but then I remember the Burton version had Raquel Welch in it. Interestingly, the always-dependable resource Wikipedia points out how two 2015 releases, EX MACHINA and CRIMSON PEAK, drew inspiration from the same story. It definitely seems like uncharacteristic material for Chaplin, who made MONSIEUR VERDOUX seven years after the similarly bold THE GREAT DICTATOR, but to me (and to BAMcinématek, clearly) that makes it all the more of an appealing prospect.
Monday, November 23rd
SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)
DONNIE DARKO was a ready-made cult item that my generation immediately welcomed as a classic. Although there was plenty to like there, I was more skeptical. Not all of it holds up under rigorous examination, or the simple passage of time. In retrospect, we could have seen SOUTHLAND TALES coming as early as the DVD commentary for DONNIE DARKO, in which filmmaker Richard Kelly waxes philosophical at length about subtext to the film that just doesn’t exist on screen. For me that was educational, the first demonstration of how the author of a piece isn’t always her or his own best audience. SOUTHLAND TALES is the unrestrained Richard Kelly, which is absolutely worth viewing, don’t get me wrong. Like DONNIE DARKO, SOUTHLAND TALES is inarguably creative, imaginatively cast, and almost constantly engaging. No one else could have made either of these movies. But SOUTHLAND TALES, more than DONNIE DARKO, which had more cohesion comparatively, feels like ten thousand ideas colliding into each other all at once. It’s unchecked overthinking. It’s the moment when the high becomes the headache. Even now, I prefer thinking about the movie I wanted SOUTHLAND TALES to be over revisiting the movie it ended up becoming. That said, when a creator swings this wide you’ve got to give ’em the respect of seeing it at least once to make up your own mind.
Tuesday, November 23nd
AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975)
Speaking of overthinkers, Peter Bogdanovich is generally a filmmaker whose very good critical and interview books I’ve preferred, let’s put it that way. So if I’m being honest, I can’t even say I knew this movie existed before now. But as my actions have proven time and time again, I’ll see just about anything Burt Reynolds is in, and the idea of Burt in a musical is sort of irresistible. Not only that, but Madeline Kahn’s name is on that poster and she is one of the most wonderful performers who ever lived, period.
Wednesday, November 24th
I can’t even pretend to write objectively about POPEYE, my favorite Altman film, the first of his I ever saw, not to mention the first time I ever watched Robin Williams. Here’s what I wrote about him and POPEYE last year: “[Williams’] first leading role was in 1980, in Robert Altman’s POPEYE, which was then maligned but is happily, now beloved by cooler people everywhere. It’s the first movie I saw him in. I think it was a beautiful introduction. Who else could commit that thoroughly to portraying one of the most cartoonish of cartoon characters? Popeye is the most notorious mutterer in all of popular culture, and on top of his unintelligible speech, he only has full use of half his face, meaning by definition his expressions are limited, yet somehow, in that movie, Robin Williams as Popeye convinces. You entirely believe he lovesk his Olivesk and he lovesk his Swee’Pea. POPEYE is a purposefully chaotic film, a swooning, careening jumble — it makes you feel like a drunken sailor on the deck of a rickety ship in choppy seas — but Robin Williams is its anchor of odd sincerity.”
When Tippi Hedren married a producer named Noel Marshall, the two of them decided to make a film about their shared passion of conservation, using the nature preserve upon which they kept scores of untrained big cats. Intended to be a bright, sunny Disney-style adventure film in the style of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, the making of ROAR saw it quickly become something else entirely. Basically, and I know this comes as a shock, but it’s not the greatest idea to make an unscripted movie with undomesticated lions. It’s not the greatest idea to go near undomesticated lions. It’s not the greatest idea to assume lions can be domesticated. If a film can fall backwards into a genre by accident, then ROAR is most definitely a horror film. This movie is like if that lion scene from THE HAPPENING was two hours long. It’s like JAWS if Roy Scheider kept the shark in a pool in his backyard and kept inviting friends over to take a dip. It’s a terrible idea. But as disaster cinema, it’s transfixing.
Thursday – Friday, November 25th-26th
I have not seen this legendarily ill-fated cinematic voyage, but I have seen LIZ & DICK, the 2012 Lifetime movie touching upon its production, in which Lindsay Lohan plays Elizabeth Taylor. Wouldn’t you like to read that?
HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)
The running time is what has always scared me off, to tell the truth, because otherwise this sounds like my kind of movie, starring many of my favorite actors, not least of which being Kris Kristofferson, who is one of the great American talents. Spending more than three hours in that company doesn’t sound all that disastrous to me.
Saturday, November 28th
William Friedkin’s SORCERER is the definition of a great film that deserved a better shake than it got. The good news is that, unlike so many well-regarded films of a certain age, it’s as vital and as energetic as ever. Here’s what I’ve written about SORCERER in the past: “Few filmmakers of any generation have made even one film as good as Friedkin’s handful of stone classics. His work is uncommonly vibrant, vigorous, and challenging. SORCERER is no exception. In fact, it is the ultimate example of what this terrific director can do. Friedkin’s compositions, and the work of cinematographers John Stephens and Dick Bush, make this late-1970s film look and feel like it could just easily have been a film made ten years later, or even twenty. Its look is unusually vigorous, visually speaking.” Speaking plainly, this movie can still knock you on your ass.
Kyle MacLachlan (seen earlier on the schedule in SHOWGIRLS) deserves the medal for valor for starring in two of the turkeys on this list. Still, this was a risk worth taking. It’s as mainstream as David Lynch ever got, and maybe it was a lesson to everyone that David Lynch never needed to be in the mainstream. But it’s certainly true that David Lynch is one of the great cinematic artists, and at the very least it’s instructive to consider even his failures. DUNE is a really big, really weird movie, and while I don’t love it as much as its growing number of defenders do, this is another one of those cases where you’re best served seeing for yourself.
Sunday, November 29th
ONE FROM THE HEART (1981)
Still haven’t seen this movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s purported folly, partly because it hasn’t always been easy to see. But, particularly coming from the director of THE GODFATHER and APOCALYPSE NOW, how can you root against a movie with a title like that?
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