Category Archives: Worst of the Best

Twixt

Twixt

twixt1

Today’s entry into the continuing spotlight on bad movies by good directors is Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt.

Twixt was written, produced, and directed by New Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola, whose works include Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, The Godfather Part 3, Dracula, The Outsiders, and The Cotton Club. However, he is also well known for having one of the steepest career declines in cinema history, in which he descended from being one of the greatest working directors in the business to being an at-best middling player.

The cinematographer for Twixt was Mihai Malaimare Jr., who has most notably shot The Master, Tetro, Youth Without Youth, and A Walk Among The Tombstones.

The editor for the film was Glen Scantlebury, who also cut Armageddon, Con Air, Stolen, and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 take on Dracula.

The makeup and special effects work on Twixt was provided by a team that included Aurora Bergere (Joy, Gone Girl, The Master, Argo), Doug E. Williams (Moneyball, Howard The Duck), and Dick Wood (The Running Man, Freejack, Starman, Jaws 3-D).

The visual effects unit for Twixt included Michal Cavoj (Salt, Blackhat), Catherine Craig (Van Helsing, Willow), Ales Dlabac (Perfume, Season of the Witch), David Ebner (The Happening, Dracula 2000, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Core), Benjamin Hawkins (Spawn, After Earth), and Lukas Herrmann (Snowpiercer, Perfume), among many others.

The cast of Twixt includes Val Kilmer (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Heat, Red Planet, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Batman Forever, Top Gun, Alexander), Bruce Dern (Nebraska, The Hateful Eight, The Burbs, Bloody Mama), Elle Fanning (Babel, Super 8), Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line), Joanne Whalley (Willow, The Man Who Knew Too Little), David Paymer (Get Shorty, Drag Me To Hell), Ryan Simpkins (Space Warriors, A Single Man), and Tom Waits (The Cotton Club, Mystery Men, Seven Psychopaths).

twixt3The plot of Twixt is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A writer with a declining career arrives in a small town as part of his book tour and gets caught up in a murder mystery involving a young girl. That night in a dream, he is approached by a mysterious young ghost named V. He’s unsure of her connection to the murder in the town, but is grateful for the story being handed to him. Ultimately he is led to the truth of the story, surprised to find that the ending has more to do with his own life than he could ever have anticipated.

Twixt currently holds Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores of 29% from critics and 18% from audiences, alongside a 4.8 user rating on IMDb. The movie only got a limited theatrical release, which means that it came up far shy of its $7 million budget.

The cinematography and visuals in Twixt for the most part look pretty good, if not a bit over the top, but there’s certainly no indications of this being Coppola’s handiwork. It looks like it could have been a debut picture for any semi-anonymous indie director nowadays, which isn’t saying much. The colors are certainly memorable throughout the movie, but I couldn’t help but feel like it went a bit overboard with the contrast.

However, Twixt does have a huge weakness that makes it nearly unwatchable: the writing lacks even the slightest semblance of coherence, as if Coppola was deliberately trying to outdo Twin Peaks and went a few steps too far into the void in the process. It might not be immediately evident from reading this blog, but I’m for a good art movie. That said, there is such a thing as trying too hard, and this movie absolutely reeks of it.  My guess is that Coppola over-corrected in the hopes of creating a laudable and redeeming art movie, and the result is transparently desperate.

twixt2Personally, I don’t think Twixt is a total failure of a movie. There are certainly some redeeming aspects to it, and I understand why some people have found it enjoyable. Personally, however, I really couldn’t get past how muddled the story and writing were. Despite some really good performances from Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern, as well as some decent cinematography, I would generally advise avoiding Twixt. Unless you have a high tolerance for nonsense or are on a completion crusade through the filmography of Francis Ford Coppola, give Twixt a pass.

Advertisements

Saturn 3

Saturn 3

saturnthree1

Continuing my current spotlight on the “Worst of the Best,” today’s feature is Stanley Donen’s 1980 science fiction flick Saturn 3.

The story for Saturn 3 is credited to John Barry, a production designer who worked on Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, and Superman, and who was initially set to direct the film. The screenplay, however, was provided by acclaimed writer Martin Amis, and is to date his only listed screenplay credit on IMDb.

Saturn 3 was directed and produced by Stanley Donen, who is best known for memorable movies like Singin’ In The Rain, Charade, Funny Face, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Bedazzled, but also closed out his career with a string of failures like Blame It On Rio, Lucky Lady, and Saturn 3.

The cinematographer for the movie was Billy Williams, whose career shooting credits include Gandhi, On Golden Pond, The Manhattan Project, and Voyage of the Damned.

The editor for Saturn 3 was Richard Marden, who cut movies like Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Blame It On Rio, and Sleuth, among many others.

Outside of director Stanley Donen, the producers for Saturn 3 were assistant director Eric Rattray, who was a producer on Labyrinth and an assistant director on Dr. Strangelove, and Martin Starger, whose credits include The Last Unicorn, Sophie’s Choice, Nashville, and The Muppet Movie.

The effects team for Saturn 3 included Colin Chilvers (Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Superman), Ann Brodie (Supergirl, Moonstruck, Barry Lyndon), Leonard Engelman (The Island of Doctor Moreau, Burlesque), Pauline Heys (Supergirl, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Michael Dunleavy (Judge Dredd, Aliens, Supergirl, Krull), Peter Hutchinson (Moon, Star Wars Episode I), Terry Schubert (The Dark Crystal, Event Horizon), Roy Spencer (Lifeforce), Peter Parks (DeepStar Six, Leonard Part 6), Chris Corbould (Hudson Hawk, Highlander II, Supergirl), and Joe Fitt (Legend).

The musical score for Saturn 3 was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who also provided music for movies like Wild Wild West, Slipstream (1989), My Left Foot, Spies Like Us, Leonard Part 6, Ghostbusters, Heavy Metal, Airplane!, and Animal House, among many others. However, very little of his original score was used thanks to significant re-edits and the change of director on the film.

The cast for Saturn 3 is made up of Kirk Douglas (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, In Harm’s Way, Gunfight At The OK Corral, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea), Harvey Keitel (Star Knight, Beeper, Bad Lieutenant. Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs), Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run, The Cannonball Run, Dr. T and The Women, Myra Breckinridge), and Roy Dotrice (Swimming With Sharks, Suburban Commando, Beauty and the Beast, Amadeus).

The plot of Saturn 3 is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Two lovers stationed at a remote base in the asteroid fields of Saturn are intruded upon by a retentive technocrat from Earth and his charge: a malevolent 8-ft robot. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream.

saturnthree2Saturn 3 had a change of director part way through filming, when Stanley Donen, who was initially just a producer on the project, took over many directing duties, which led to first time director John Barry leaving the production. Barry tragically died not long afterwards in 1979, while working on The Empire Strikes Back.

Bizarrely, Harvey Keitel’s voice is dubbed over throughout the film by character and voice actor Roy Dotrice, reportedly because Stanley Donen disliked Keitel’s natural Brooklyn accent.

Saturn 3 received three Golden Raspberry nominations in the first year of the award’s existence. The “Razzies” are now annually given out to the judged worst films and performances of a given year. Kirk Douglas and Farah Fawcett were both nominated for Worst Actor/Actress respectively, and the film as a whole was nominated for Worst Picture.

Currently, Saturn 3 holds an IMDb user rating of 5.0, alongside Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores of 10% from critics and 31% from audiences. The film’s budget was reportedly cut early on, but it almost certainly failed to turn a profit with a $9 million total domestic gross.

First off, the dubbing work done over Kietel is beyond strange to me. The man has a distinct and instantly recognizable voice, so it seems bizarre that he would even be cast if there was an issue with his accent. The change in director part-way in might explain that to some degree, but Donen was already involved as a producer before taking on directing duties. Either way, it is impossible that a Brooklyn accent would be less distracting than an odd dubbing.

Kirk Douglas and Farah Fawcett, who are undoubtedly the core of this movie, couldn’t possibly have less chemistry between them. Personally, I’m shocked that both of them were cast, because the story essentially mandates a legitimate and believable level of compatibility between an older man and a younger woman, which just isn’t delivered here at all. Without that emotional center, the already flimsy story certainly doesn’t hold any water.

Speaking of which, the film is written almost entirely about anxieties over romantic age differences, with a thin veneer of science fiction on top. While that isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard, the result here just isn’t terribly interesting. Whereas Logan’s Run and Soylent Green successfully tapped into anxieties relating to age and aging, Saturn 3 manages to completely miss that mark, and fails to resonate at all as a result. The casting certainly contributed to this, but I don’t think the writing did them any favors either.

saturnthree3Roger Ebert was always at the top of his game when he wrote reviews for bad movies, and Saturn 3 was certainly no exception. His coverage of the movie nicely sums up one of its most glaring issues: the story and content is both astoundingly shallow.

The love triangle between Douglas, Fawcett and Keitel is so awkwardly and unbelievably handled that we are left in stunned indifference. The purpose of Keitel’s visit is left so unclear we can’t believe Douglas would accept it. The hostility of the robot is unexplained.

This movie is awesomely stupid, totally implausible from a scientific viewpoint, and a shameful waste of money. If Grade and Kastner intend to continue producing films with standards this low, I think they ought instead, in simple fairness, to simply give their money to filmmakers at random. The results couldn’t be worse.

Overall, Saturn 3 is a movie that had a potentially interesting vision behind it, but never quite got realized. It is mostly just a boring feature to sit through, but there is a peculiar sort of nostalgic value to sitting through it that helps fill in the void of conventional entertainment offered. Bad movie fans could certainly find something to enjoy here, but I don’t think it would hold much for general audiences.

The Ward

The Ward

Print

Today’s entry into “Worst of the Best” is John Carpenter’s 2010 effort, The Ward.

The Ward was written by the duo of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who also wrote the movies Long Distance, Dark Feed, and The Inhabitants.

The Ward is (to date) the final directorial effort of John Carpenter, who is highly regarded for both his horror and action movies, including Halloween, They Live, Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Starman, Christine, The Thing, and Vampires.

The cinematographer for the film was Yaron Orbach, who has worked extensively on Orange Is The New Black, as well as on movies like The Ten, Birds of America, The Open Road, and The Joneses.

The editor for The Ward was Patrick McMahon, who cut the 2008 remake of It’s Alive, Little Monsters, Strange Brew, P2, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, among others.

The producers for the movie included Peter Block (Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Crank), Doug Mankoff (Nebraska), Mike Marcus (You Kill Me), and Hans Ritter (Hard Candy).

The musical score for The Ward was provided by Mark Kilian, who provided music for movies like Traitor, Rendition, Pitch Perfect, and the television series Castle. This is particularly notable because historically, John Carpenter has provided most of his film’s scores himself.

The makeup effects were provided by a team that included Howard Berger (976-EVIL, Intruder, The People Under The Stairs, Vampires), Greg Nicotero (The Black Cat, Dreams in the Witch House, From Dusk Till Dawn 2, From Dusk Till Dawn 3, Maniac Cop 3), Kerrin Jackson (Son of the Mask, Jonah Hex), and Kevin Wasner (Catwoman, Jennifer’s Body).

The special effects unit for The Ward was made up in part by Brian Goehring (The Last Airbender, Species), Stephen Klineburger (Drive Angry), Dirk Rogers (The Stepford Wives, Collateral, Death Proof), Casey Pritchett (Vampires, Face/Off), Ray Brown (Class of 1999).

The cast of The Ward was made up of Amber Heard (The Rum Diary, Drive Angry, Zombieland), Mamie Gummer (Cake, Side Effects), Danielle Panabaker (The Flash, Friday the 13th), Laura-Leigh (We’re The Millers), Jared Harris (Dead Man, Lost In Space, Mad Men), Mika Boorem (The Patriot, Hearts In Atlantis), and Lyndsy Fonseca (Agent Carter, Kick-Ass).

The plot of The Ward is summarized on IMDb as follows:

An institutionalized young woman becomes terrorized by a ghost.

theward1The Ward currently has an IMDb user rating of 5.6, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 33% from critics and 27% from audiences. Financially, it lost a significant amount of money: on an estimated budget of $10 million, is grossed barely over $1 million, almost entirely from international markets.

The Ward isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Really, it isn’t anywhere close to the worst. However, it represents a really disheartening fall from grace for both John Carpenter and the genre as a whole, because it is just so overwhelmingly mediocre and familiar. If there is anything that John Carpenter has never been in his career, it is familiar. Even his other arguable missteps, like Ghosts of Mars and Escape From L.A., still feel like John Carpenter at the end of the day. The Ward, however, seems like it could have been made by any half-assed horror director in Hollywood, and people just expected something better than that from Carpenter.

The most similar film in Carpenter’s filmography to The Ward is probably In The Mouth of Madness (though it is a stretch). Comparing the ways that the two movies (and the two versions of Carpenter) deal with a similar steady blurring of fiction and reality reveals a lot about why The Ward feels so tired and unremarkable. In The Mouth of Madness presented an eerie world from the start, where things feel off-kilter naturally, and the environment steadily declines until the conclusion of the second act, when sanity takes a nosedive. It is a profoundly surreal movie that utilizes fantastic effects work and visuals to create the atmosphere of a world descending into a Lovecraftian hell. The Ward, on the other hand, is never quite so dramatic. It is a slow story punctuated solely by jump-scares (a tired tactic), where the entire world seems to exist in a bland scale of sepia tones. The visuals are never particularly compelling, and the tension is mostly reliant upon musical cues. The world doesn’t feel as curious or strange on the whole, which ruins what could have been a really cool claustrophobic atmosphere. The whole direction of The Ward strikes me as passionless, like Carpenter went into autopilot and just wanted to color between the lines.

That said, there are some definite positives to The Ward. Specifically, I think that the performances are solid from top to bottom: Amber Heard deals with her leading responsibilities well, and Jared Harris absolutely kills it as the hospital’s primary doctor. The last act also sees the story and action start to kick into gear, and makes for a pretty compelling last 25 minutes or so.

Overall, The Ward isn’t bad so much as it is disappointing. I don’t think it is worse than the field at large, but Carpenter’s reputation looms over it, and might have put expectations on it that it couldn’t possibly have been lived up to. Regardless, it may very well stand as the final entry in Carpenter’s filmography, as much of a shame as that might be. However, for what it is worth, I though it was better than the flaming garbage pile that is Ghosts of Mars. Stay tuned for that one.

1941

1941

19411

Today, I am continuing a new segment on bad movies by good directors, called “Worst of the Best.” Today’s specific feature is 1941, a 1979 comedy by the legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

1941 was written by the duo of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who are best known for Back To The Future, with an additional story credit given to producer John Milius, who also wrote Apocalypse Now, Magnum Force, and wrote and directed flicks like Red Dawn, Dillinger, and Conan The Barbarian.

1941 was, as mentioned previously, directed by one of the most commercial and accomplished directors in Hollywood history: Steven Spielberg. His films have ranged from commercial blockbusters like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to science fiction films like Minority Report, War of the Worlds, A.I., E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to acclaimed award-winners like Lincoln, Schindler’s List, and Munich.

The cinematographer for the film was William Fraker, who shot movies such as SpaceCamp, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, The Exorcist II, WarGames, and Street Fighter, among many others over his career.

1941 was edited by frequent Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn, who also cut the movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Fatal Attraction, Twister, Reindeer Games, Catch Me If You Can, War Horse, and many others.

The team of producers for the movie included co-writer John Milius, editor Michael Kahn, Janet Healy (Shark Tale, Despicable Me, The Lorax), and Buzz Feitshans (Total Recall, First Blood, Tombstone).

The musical score for 1941 was provided by the legendary John Williams, who is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable film scorers of all time. His other credits include Catch Me If You Can, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Jaws, SpaceCamp, Jurassic Park, Sleepers, and Superman, along with countless others.

The special effects team for 1941 inlcuded A.D. Flowers (The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Apocalypse Now), Donald Myers (Waterworld, Blade Runner), Steve Lombardi (Once Upon A Time In America, The Philadelphia Experiment), Steve Galich (Face/Off, Maximum Overdrive), Eugene Crum (The Postman, North), Ken Estes (Lawnmower Man 2, Thinner), Logan Frazee (Dollman, Willy Wonka, Chinatown), and Terry D. Frazee (Point Break).

The 1941 visual effects unit included Robert Short (Chopping Mall, Splash, Piranha), Matthew Yuricich (Die Hard, Ghostbusters, Logan’s Run), Frank Van der Veer (Orca, Flash Gordon), Gregory Jein (Laserblast, The Scorpion King), Ken Swenson (The Core, The Faculty, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Robin Dean Layden (Judge Dredd, Ghostbusters).

The massive cast of 1941 includes notables like John Belushi (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Dragnet, Grosse Pointe Blank, Ghostbusters), Ned Beatty (Network, Captain America, Deliverance), Christopher Lee (Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express, The Wicker Man, The House That Dripped Blood, Gremlins 2, The Man With The Golden Gun, The Lord of The Rings), Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo), Lorraine Gary (Jaws, Jaws: The Revenge), Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, Dillinger, Badlands), Robert Stack (Unsolved Mysteries), Slim Pickens (Doctor Strangelove), John Candy (The Great Outdoors, Spaceballs, Uncle Buck, Vacation, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), Nancy Allen (RoboCop, RoboCop 2, RoboCop 3), Treat Williams (Dead Heat, Night of the Sharks), Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, Jaws), Dick Miller (Chopping Mall, Gremlins, A Bucket of Blood), John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Darkman), and Mickey Rourke (Sin City, Iron Man 2, The Wrestler, Double Team, Angel Heart).

19412The plot of 1941 is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who were cast members together on Saturday Night Live and close friends/collaborators in real life, share no screen-time in 1941 outside of a single deleted sequence.

Surprisingly, 1941 wound up nominated for three different Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It ultimately lost out in all three categories.

1941 was the feature film debut for both Dan Aykroyd and Mickey Rourke, who have gone on to have significant successes on screen, though in very different ways.

Cinematographer William Fraker was reportedly fired and replaced late into shooting on 1941 due to creative differences with Spielberg, but still received full credit for the work. As mentioned previously, he was even nominated for an Academy Award for the cinematography on the movie, which is a particular rarity for someone who was fired from a film.

Despite its reputation as a public failure, 1941 did ultimately make a profit, though it relied heavily on foreign box office returns to bring in $60.7 million of its eventual $92 million take. Domestically, however, it dramatically underwhelmed, particularly for a work by Steven Spielberg. Likewise, 1941 currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 49% from audiences. This makes it an incredible rarity in the career of Steven Spielberg: a disappointment, both commercially and critically.

One of the biggest problems with 1941 is summarized in the New York Times review of the movie by Vincent Canby:

It may possibly be that Mr. Spielberg has chosen gigantic size and unlimited quantity as his comedy method in the awareness that he has no gift whatsoever for small-scale comic conceits. The slapstick gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs; they simply go on too long. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed.

Essentially, my opinion is that 1941 is a movie with an immense amount of talent behind it on all levels, but the humor within it is spread incredibly thin over a poorly-paced run time and across an unnecessarily large cast, which dilutes a movie that should have been a classic into something that is only vaguely entertaining through relying on “gigantic size and unlimited quantity.” Some of the sight gags and slapstick moments work, as Canby notes in his review, but they hang just a little too long. For instance, a number of moments in the club brawl scene and subsequent riot are funny on paper, but are drawn out far too long on screen.

Likewise, the opening to Roger Ebert’s review of 1941 is spot-on if you ask me, and compares the film to Doctor Strangelove, which struck me as a key inspiration for the film:

It’s not fair to say Steven Spielberg’s “1941” lacks “pacing.” It’s got it, all right, but all at the same pace: The movie relentlessly throws gags at us until we’re dizzy. It’s an attempt at that most tricky of genres, the blockbuster comedy, and it tries so hard to dazzle us that we want a break. It’s a good-hearted, cheerfully disorganized mess that makes us appreciate “Dr. Strangelove,” just a little bit more.

I can’t help but agree with this assessment: 1941 is a loud and zany movie, to the point of being exhausting and obnoxious. There’s a reason that Loony Tunes cartoons are usually short: if they go on too long, they lose their entertainment value and become abrasively annoying, which is exactly the case with 1941 if you ask me.

People certainly seem to have softened on 1941 over the years, at least in part due to the involvement of John Belushi, for whom 1941 was one of his precious few prominent film roles. That said, while his contribution is a highlight, he is a very limited part of the movie. The whole film is filled with astounding performers, who unfortunately all fail to live up to their potential given the limited nature of the ensemble structure.  I can’t help but imagine what Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee on screen together could have been like under different circumstances and under someone else’s direction. In any case, there is a novelty aspect to seeing all of these performers under one large roof, but excellent ingredients don’t always make for an excellent product. At best, 1941 is a mildly charming curiosity, and an experience worth having for the sake of trivia alone. I’d loosely recommend checking it out, but I can’t do so with a whole lot of enthusiasm.

19413

The Wiz

The Wiz

thewiz1

Today, I’m launching a new segment for the blog: “Worst of the Best,” where I will spotlight movies by legendary filmmakers that aren’t on par with their lauded reputations and careers. To start it off, I’ll be taking a look at Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of The Wiz, from 1978.

The Wiz has the rare distinction of being an adaptation of a re-imagining. The original story behind the movie is, of course, pulled from L. Frank Baum’s legendary 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. However, The Wiz is a direct adaptation of an acclaimed 1974 Broadway musical version of the story, which was written by William F. Brown. The screenplay for this filmed version of The Wiz is interestingly credited to Joel Schumacher, who is mostly known for his later directorial efforts (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Falling Down, The Lost Boys, Flatliners).

The Wiz was directed by highly-acclaimed film-maker Sidney Lumet, whose long list of credits spanned over five decades, and includes a number of modern classics: Network, 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, among others.

The cinematographer for The Wiz was Oswald Morris, who also shot The Dark Crystal, Oliver!, and Stanley Kubrick’s take on Lolita.

The editor for the film was Dede Allen, whose other credits include The Breakfast Club, Serpico, Slap Shot, Dog Day Afternoon, Bonnie & Clyde, The Missouri Breaks, and Slaughterhouse-Five, among many, many others.

The team of producers for The Wiz included film-maker Rob Cohen (Stealth, Alex Cross, xXx, The Skulls, DragonHeart), assistant director Burtt Harris (Freejack, Marathon Man, The Devil’s Advocate), and the legendary music producer Berry Gordy, who also had a heavy hand in The Last Dragon.

thewiz3The effects work for the movie was done by a team that included special effects guru Stan Winston (Congo, Lake Placid, Bat People, The Island of Dr. Moreau, How To Make A Monster, Small Soldiers, Leviathan, Predator 2), Scott Cunningham (Ganja & Hess), Al Griswold (Leon The Professional, 8MM, The Devil’s Advocate), Carl Fullerton (Glory, Goodfellas, Philadelphia, The Silence of The Lambs), Robert Laden (Thinner, Wolf, Scent of a Woman), Michael R. Thomas (Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2), Allen Weisinger (Face/Off, The Last Dragon), Albert Whitlock (The Exorcist II, Killdozer, The Car, The Blues Brothers, The Thing, Dune), and Bill Taylor (DeepStar Six).

The music for The Wiz was originally composed for the Broadway musical by a man named Charlie Smalls, which earned him a Tony Award. Smalls was interestingly a child prodigy musician, who began attending Juliard at age 11. Sadly, he died in 1987, before he did any other film scores.

The cast for The Wiz includes “The King of Pop” Michael Jackson (Thriller, Moonwalker, Miss Castaway), famed singer Diana Ross, legendary comedian Richard Pryor (Superman III, The Toy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil), Ted Ross (Police Academy), Mabel King (Scrooged, The Jerk), and Theresa Merritt (Billy Madison, The Serpent and The Rainbow).

The plot of The Wiz is summarized on IMDb as follows:

An adaption of “The Wizard of Oz” that tries to capture the essence of the African American experience.

In December of 2015, NBC produced a live version of the Broadway musical of The Wiz, which has resulted in a new audience being made aware of the curious cult classic movie adaptation from 1978.

There are conflicting reports as to how the original director for the film, John Badham (WarGames, Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever), left the production. However, there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement over the cause of his departure: the casting of Diana Ross, then 33, in the role of the written-as-14 lead character of Dorothy was a decision he disagreed with vehemently. Ross apparently lobbied hard for the role, and may have been the key influencing factor that brought Michael Jackson to the project.

thewiz2The budget for The Wiz was estimated to have been around $24 million, on which it only managed to make back $21 million in its lifetime theatrical release, making it a net loss from a financial perspective.

The Wiz currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 30% from critics and 65% from audiences, along with IMDb user rating of 5.2. In spite of the underwhelming response to the movie, it has grown into its own as a cult classic over the years. Additionally, it wound up with four Academy Award nominations, though it failed to win in any of the categories.

While watching The Wiz, I was reminded quite a bit of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which released in the same year. Both of them star talented and popular musicians (without any real acting talent), and they both subsequently have decent songs as a result. However, The Wiz is certainly better constructed than Sgt. Pepper, as it has some really cool production and set design. The aesthetic of the movie is unlike just about anything else you’ll see.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives really end with The Wiz. It looks and sounds good, but the movie is more of a music video than a movie. The minute any of the performers are expected to actually act, things fall apart fast. I can certainly see how this could fly well on a stage with trained musical actors, but with pop stars like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in the roles, it just doesn’t gel. Particularly, Ross is not up to the task of leading this movie: she was miscast to start with, and doesn’t prove to have the acting chops (if you ask me) to overcome that issue. Even worse, however, is the supporting cast, which is uniformly composed of obnoxious characters that did little other than grate on me. Surprisingly, Michael Jackson was probably the most watchable of the lot, which says more about the cast as a whole than it does about his acting talents.

Overall, I suppose I understand why this movie has a special place in the cultural mindset: in a lot of ways, it is unforgettable. It was also a major cultural coup to have a Hollywood production with an all-black cast, which is still not a particularly common sight. In 1977, it was unthinkable for many. However, I think The Wiz, in retrospect, is the perfect example of a gilded movie, with plenty of flash on the outside, but nothing compelling underneath the surface.

When it comes down to it, I think the biggest issue with the movie is that the wrong people were picked for the production, and not just Diana Ross (though that is certainly an issue). I think the production was in a serious rush, and Sidney Lumet was the first available person to take the job, and was picked for his reputation of staying on budget rather than for his skillset being suitable for the movie. Two years earlier, he made on of the best satire films of all time (Network), with defining dramatic performances for the modern era of film. Then, he was put in charge of a fluff musical project? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

I still think The Wiz is worth checking out for bad movie fans, mostly because it is such a cult movie with nostalgic connections for so many. Personally, I’m not a big fan, but I can understand why the movie has an appeal for some people. If you ask me, Sgt. Pepper offers the same sort of musical nonsense, but with a far more hilariously terrible plot and final product. If a good-bad movie is what you are looking for, I would advise going to that one first. Or, if you are particularly daring, take them on as a double feature.

As far as Sidney Lumet goes, I’m sure I’ll be getting around to more of his movies soon. There’s sort on an inevitability that such a long and prolific career would produce a few duds here and there (and there certainly are some), but that doesn’t negate his highlights in the slightest. Network is one of my favorite movies of all time, and 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico are also required watching for film buffs if you ask me. Sidney Lumet is a master, and one who doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves as one of the greats.