Most of the great directors we know are considered auteurs – an ‘author’ of a film who also has a consistency of style, subject, and/or theme. Every once in a while a director will throw us for a loop and make a film that is inconsistent with his or her other work. Here’s a compilation that has been brewing in my head for a long time – a list of the most famous cinematic anomalies from great directors. These anomalies aren’t necessarily flops, or failures, but deviations in either style, theme or genre from their traditionally known films. For example, Steven Spielberg’s “1941” is considered a major flop, but the themes, comedy and style of the film all carry his signature stamp – in this case all taken to the extreme. As well I've excluded most 'first features' from directors. For example, James Cameron's "Pirahna II" or Oliver Stone's "Seizure" or even "The Hand", both of which were made before their acclaimed work began. The first entry, Robert Altman’s “Popeye’ looks and sounds like an Altman picture, but the subject matter – a popular comic book series meant to be a tentpole franchise film for its studio? That’s anything but Altman territory.
Robert Altman – Popeye
The 70’s were Robert Altman’s decade. He produced quantity - directing at least one film every year in the decade – and quality (“MASH”, “McCabe” and “Mrs. Miller”, “Nashville”). The anomaly that jumps out us is "Popeye" – a musical based on the famous comic books, starring Robin Williams. I saw the film in the theatre as a kid, and though I was 5 when I saw it, I do remember it sucking really badly. Of course, there are hordes of cult fans for the film. It's considered a bomb in its day, and put Altman in the Hollywood doldrums for much of the 80’s. Interestingly though, the film took in almost $50million in the box office, almost double its budget. And despite the reputation of the film it received some great praise from the nation’s most noted critics – two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert. The latter of the two wrote about Altman, “He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms -- the comic strip -- and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits.” Vincent Camby of the New York Times wrote, “''Popeye'' has other unexpected joys, including the fact that, unlike most movies, it gets better and better as it goes along." Judge for yourself.
Francis Coppola – Jack
Another Robin Williams film. Hmmm, a trend? I don’t know anyone who has actually seen “Jack”. So, if it’s a great film please correct me. Jack tells the story of a man whose body ages four times as fast as his brain. Therefore when Jack is 10, he has the body of a 40 year old. Most of the humour derives from the concept of Robin Williams in an elementary school classroom. Todd McCarthy summed up everyone’s question in his 1996 review, “The message of ‘Jack,’ as spelled out for all to hear in the climactic scene, is, 'None of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting.' What, then, is Francis Ford Coppola doing spending a year on this tedious, uneventful fantasy…”
Roman Polanski – Pirates
Since the early 60’s Roman Polanski had established himself as one of the great psychological horror directors – “Knife in the Water”, “Repulsion”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Pirates”… what? Starring Walter Mathau? It turns out “Pirates” was a labour of love for Polanski who first conceived the idea after “Chinatown” (1974) with Jack Nicholson as the lead. That nasty statutory rape case put a halt to those plans in the 70’s, but he revived the project in the 80’s. Critically and commercially it was a bomb. Roger Ebert trashed the film back in the day saying, “This movie represents some kind of low point for the genre that gave us ‘Captain Blood’.”
Stanley Kubrick - Spartacus
Every time I cruise the Kubrick filmmography and marvel at his great body of work, I stop and pause at “Spartacus”. Since “Paths of Glory” (1957) (and arguably “The Killing the year before) Kubrick’s films look, sound and feel like ‘Kubrick films - his beautiful tracking shots, zooms, wideangle lenses, classical music. But "Spartacus" is so generic, so Hollywood, so not his film, it warrants a mention. Only one shot in the film screams Kubrick – the hint of the ‘Kubrick stare’ on Kirk Douglas early on in the film. Other than that, it’s a hack job. It’s a wonderfully competent film, with terrific action scenes – especially the dramatic battle scene at the end – but it was his first and only ‘director for hire’ job and a bold anomaly of his career.
Walter Hill – Brewster’s Millions
Walter Hill is an action legend. A protégé of bloody Sam Peckinpah, Hill took the editing style of Peckinpah and adapted it to his own personal style of filmmaking. Hill made fun adventures with highly stylized violence – “The Driver”, “The Warriors”, “48 Hours”, “Streets of Fire”. His characters were alpha male macho and dirty. But in 1986 he made a Richard Pryor-John Candy comedy, “Brewster’s Millions” about a down and out baseball player who inherits $300 million but has to spend it in 30 days. The novel it was based on was actually originally written in 1902, and made into a film six times before. So perhaps it was Hill remaking a film or book he loved in his youth. Who knows.
Brian De Palma – Wise Guys
Like Walter Hill above, in 1986 the popular director of violent horror films decided to go comedy. “Wise Guys” is a Danny De Vito-Joe Piscopo vehicle about two lowly mob errand runners who are set up to kill each other. It’s a mob-comedy romp, unlike any of De Palma’s popular and best known films. It’s interesting to note that De Palma did start out in comedy before turning to Hitchcockian horror films – "Hi Mom!" and “Phantom of the Paradise” are both wildly comic films. But when sandwiched between “Body Double” (1984) and "The Untouchables" (1987), the film is a head scratcher.
Robert Wise – Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Robert Wise is a man of all genres – horror, musical, sci-fi - and when cinephiles talk about the great career of Mr. Wise, it’s “The Sound of Music, “The Haunting”, The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “West Side Story” – not to mention his editing resume which includes “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” But the first Star Trek film? Between the cancellation of the 60’s TV Series and this first feature film there were several attempts to revive the series in the 70’s, the closest being a TV pilot entitled “Phase II” to be directed by Bob Collins. After Star Wars was released, the pilot was reworked into the feature film, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Paramount replaced the unknown Bob Collins with sure hand of Oscar-winner “Robert Wise”. Until the recent addition of JJ Abrams, the franchise hasn’t had a higher profile director since Mr. Wise. Wise was lambasted by critics and fans for overusing the 'awkstruck-ness' of the special effects and not concentrating on the heart of the "Star Trek" stories.
John Huston – Victory!
“Victory!” is a guilty pleasure from my youth – a story about Allied WWII prisoners who, in captivity, play a game of Soccer against the German national team, as a rouse for their elaborate escape plan. The film starred Sly Stallone as the lone American (who played the goalkeeper), Michael Caine, and Max von Sydow. Many real-life soccer/football stars were also featured, including the Brazilian great, Pele, and Premiership stars, Bobby Moore and Mike Summerbee. How or why the great 75 year old director of “The Maltese Falcon” and “The African Queen” got involved, I don’t know . The film has a cult following, especially in Britain (where the film was named “Escape to Victory).
David Lynch – The Straight Story
Though “The Straight Story” is a new film and still in our memories, many years from now when Lynch is dead and gone, this film will most certainly be his anomaly. There's no sex, no horror, no surrealness. The appropriately titled film, tells the true story of Alvin Straight, a humble farmer who travels hundreds of miles on a John Deere tractor to be with his dying brother. It features the Oscar-nominated last role for Richard Farnsworth – who sadly died shortly after the Oscar ceremony. “The Straight Story” is a great film, and is much different in style and tone to his other films. There are some wonderful moments of introspective poignancy which fits in well with Lynch's style. Watch the dissolves and sound design of the scene below. As well, there's a wonderful moment with Sissy Spacek and Farnsworth at night pondering life while looking up at the stars.
Sam Raimi – For Love of the Game
Sam Raimi is a big baseball fan – a Michigan-born Tigers fan. As a hired hand, “For Love of the Game” fell into Raimi’s lap with Kevin Costner already cast. The result was a maligned production involving some high-profile disputes between director and star. Upon release the film fell out of theatres quickly and quietly. Of course, this was the pre-“Spider-Man” Sam Raimi. Don’t be surprised if Raimi gets back into the chair behind another baseball film that can he can coddle from the development stages to make it a true passion project.
Gus Van Zant - Finding Forrester
From 1997 – 2000 we can consider to be Gus Van Sant’s mainstream period – his “Rose Period”. “Good Will Hunting” was a major success, and he decided to follow it up with his remake of “Psycho”. Although some considered it blasphemous to reshoot such a classic, I wasn’t too perturbed by it. And if anyone could get away with it, it’s Gus Van Zant. But I won’t forgive him for his wholesome feel-goodness of “Finding Forrester.” We were all happy Van Zant went back to his experimental roots to gain back his indie cred. His next three films comprised his “death trilogy” (“Gerry”, “Elephant” and “Last Days”). “Finding Forrester” will always stand out as Van Zant’s sore thumb. I doubt he will ever make a movie like that again.
Tim Burton – Planet of the Apes
Think about it, “Planet of the Apes” is the least 'Burton-esque' film Tim Burton ever made. In fact, like Kubrick’s “Spartacus”, there’s isn’t anything in terms of production design or camerawork or humour that resembles his signature works. And other than his then wife Lisa Marie, none of the familiar Tim Burton players are present either. He may as well have called it an Alan Smithee film - it's that generic. The production was also a difficult endeavour for Burton. Perhaps his heart wasn't in it. Though the film is only 6 years old and fresh in our memory, 20 or 30 years from now, “Planet of the Apes” will likely remain Tim Burton’s anomaly.
Woody Allen – Match Point
When I saw “Match Point” in early 2006, it was one of the most refreshing films I had seen in a while. Knowing the film was a “Woody Allen film” I had certain expectations, even though I knew it wasn’t a comedy. But I was not expecting the magnificent Hitchcockian homage that it was. In fact, it’s one of best-ever “Hitchcockian” films. There is a lot of black humour in the film, but none of it smelled like Allen’s other films. As of now, “Match Point” is his anomaly, but who knows, he may be starting a new period in his career. His next film “Cassandra’s Dream” with Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell sounds like more morbid “Match Point” stuff. Can’t wait.
Wes Craven - Music of the Heart
Wes Craven made a comeback with the "Scream" franchise in 1996. He parlayed that success into his only mainsteam dramatic film "Music of the Heart" with Meryl Streep. The film wasn't bad, but wasn't great either, and I can't blame him for trying to change genres. The horror genre, especially pop-horror, is a tough hole to dig oneself out of career-wise. I doubt he's getting any decent dramatic scripts sent his way these days. It's too bad he didn't jump onto something with more substance than the uninspired retread material the film turned out to be.