People talk about sacrifice. Oh, good gravy, do they love to talk about sacrifice. But I put it to you: Isn’t the greatest sacrifice the one that no one asks for? Yes. Yes, it is.
Thus, just in time for the season of thanks, I offer the fruits of my several-weeks’ labor — a guide to 9 of the biggest “turkeys” American cinema has to offer, and an answer to the awake-at-night question, “Is Ishtar really all that terrible?” Included with each is a bit of pertinent information, as well as a label on the Turkey Scale: Tofurkey (a faux-turkey — better for you than advertised), Turkey (sure enough, it sucks), or Turducken (so appalling, it’s like a turkey with a duck shoved up its ass, with a chicken shoved up the duck’s ass `It’s
science. Look it up.`).
Oh, and you’re welcome.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: 1941 (1979)
Director: Steven Spielberg
PREMISE: In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack LA; SoCal citizenry/U.S. military freak out accordingly.
TAKE (U.s.): $31.8M
CONTEXT: Inspired by Animal House, and still glowing from the face-melting success of Jaws and Close Encounters, a wunderkind Spielberg decided to take a stab at comedy. The result is viewed, along with Apocalypse Now and a handful of other late-’70s films, as an example of the sort of directorial excess that helped implode the vaunted New Hollywood movement (’67-’82ish), which produced much of the very best in American cinema.
CASE: Of all the films Spielberg has given us — many of which have been unforgettable achievements — 1941 is, without a doubt, the one in which people say “Jap” the most. The cast is peppered with talented folks you’d rather watch in other movies, while the main characters and story are terminally uninteresting. On the whole, the comedic tone is fatally inconsistent; the whole thing plays a bit like second or third-rate Zucker Brothers and really has no business being as long as it is.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Director: Michael Cimino
PREMISE: Kris Kristofferson leads a group of impoverished immigrants against their landed oppressors; love triangle ensues; everybody dies. (Almost.)
TAKE (U.S.): $1.5M
CONTEXT: Well, this is it. Of all the floppiest flops that ever floppered, Gate, fair or no, may be considered the Granddaddiest. ’Member how 1941 is among the films blamed for strangling the New Hollywood Golden Age in its sleep and letting the High-Concept Blockbuster Age in through the back door? Well, Gate, then, is the hapless wretch that, according to legend, served High Concept a series of progressively stronger drinks and fell to making messy, adulterous love with it while burning all of New Hollywood’s photo albums and cackling maniacally.
CASE: The film is gorgeously photographed, expertly acted, and clearly wrought by a perfectionist. The story is sprawling and tragically poetic, the sort that will envelop you, if you let it. In a slightly altered universe somewhere, Cimino’s playing oversized chess with his Deer Hunter and H.G. Oscars. So, why the hatred? Frankly, the director’s cut (= the only version I found) clocks in at around three-and-a-half hours, and feels like a week. Shave off an hour-plus, and then maybe we’d be talking Cimino like we talk Coppola.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Cutthroat Island (1995)
Director: Renny Harlin
PREMISE: Geena Davis is an effing pirate.
TAKE (U.S.): $11M
CONTEXT: Remember Carolco Pictures? Founded as an indie in 1978, the company achieved almost immediate success, first with the First Blood/Rambo pictures, then with such monster hits as Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then, in 1995, it produced . Carolco Pictures, thus, no longer exists.
CASE: The thing about Cutthroat Island is that it’s half-miscast. Six actors reportedly turned down the male lead before it was given to Matthew Modine — who does what he can with it. Davis gives an equally valiant effort, but is clearly a bit uncomfortable in her first action role. The villains, on the other hand, are exquisitely hammy (I’ll watch Frank Langella in anything); add to that a handful of undeniably jaw-dropping action set pieces as well as the good sense to eschew “ghost pirates,” and, but for the casting miscues, C.I. could’ve been the film that that Disney’s Depp vehicles should’ve been. Great? No. But fun.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Waterworld (1995)
Director: Kevin Reynolds
PREMISE: Water covers Earth. Kevin Costner has gills.
TAKE (U.S.): $88M
CONTEXT: Supposedly, this was to cost $100 million, but a succession of wide-ranging issues, from sea-sickness to weather to a freak accident, sent the budget into freefall. Except, you know, upward.
CASE: Waterworld, clearly, was an attempt to effect the sort of expansive, fanciful universe that Star Wars achieved, and I appreciate the effort, because that sort of thing doesn’t get tried often. Unfortunately, snags abound. Costner’s miscast as the callous antihero, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, though a knockout, is too Midwestern-normal to pull off the otherworldly, vaguely ethnic beauty they seem to be going for. It’s a smart touch to change certain aspects of the language (drinkable water = “hydro,” etc.), but when Tripplehorn turns around and calls Costner a “son of a bitch,” the effect is shattered. And, honestly, what’s the deal with the Peter Gunn theme? Mostly, though, Waterworld’s just kinda boring.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Hudson Hawk (1991)
DIRECTOR: Michael Lehmann
PREMISE: Bruce Willis will rob your house, and sing Paul Anka while he does it.
TAKE (U.S.): $17.2M
CONTEXT: Co-conceived by Willis, Hudson Hawk was felled at least partly by an ill-advised marketing campaign that positioned the film as an action-adventure. Eager viewers came equipped with fresh memories of Die Hard 2, and the surprise wasn’t a pleasant one.
CASE: Madcap. Thoroughly, unapologetically madcap, as it should be. Glowing crucifix communicators; The Bruno at his industrial-grade smarmiest; Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhardt, who don’t just chew scenery, they giddily mash it with a fork and spit it into each others’ mouths … it’s ludicrous, but it all fits, somehow — and I’d like to watch it again this minute, please. Certainly it’s groany in parts, and there are a good 20-minutes-or-so of what-in-the-world-am-I-watching at the outset. But durned if it ain’t fun. Proof: The second time Danny Aiello and the Hawk start dueting, you’re singing along.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: The Wiz (1978)
DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
PREMISE: The strangest thing you ever saw.
TAKE (U.S.): $13M
CONTEXT: Adapted by Joel Schumacher from the 1975 Broadway musical, The Wiz tanked so badly that it’s credited with halting what had been a steady wave of popular African-American-targeted films reaching back to the early ’70s blaxploitation movement.
CASE: If you’re like me, you nearly walked outside and punched the postman when you found out Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz. (Also, if you’re like me, you have mild anger-management issues and no more regular mail service.) Take The Wizard of Oz, change Kansas to Harlem and Oz to New York City, add Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, Robo-Nipsey-Russell’s creepy-ass, life-giving tears, a flying-monkeys-on-motorbikes chase around Shea Stadium, and have the whole thing directed by the guy who did Serpico, and if you still haven’t gotten yourself fired, just walk over to the studio head’s office and start stealing knick-knacks from his desk, because you’re bulletproof. Really, though, how something this inveterately weird can be so bland is really fairly confounding.
VERDICT (Heh. Get it?): Turkey.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Ishtar (1987)
DIRECTOR: Elaine May
PREMISE: Hapless songwriting duo becomes enmeshed in the world of international espionage, frees fictional nation.
TAKE (U.s.): $14.4M (26.2%)
CONTEXT: When Waterworld went belly-up, snarky critics kicked while it was down by dubbing the film “Kevin’s Gate” (after Heaven’s Gate) and “Fishtar.” Gate and Ishtar are the gold standards of box-office lemons.
CASE: Really, the biggest problem I perceive is that Ishtar suffers from a bit of the ol’ From Dusk Till Dawn syndrome. The first 25 minutes or so are flat-out brilliant. Really great, positively gut-busting stuff, saucily scripted by May and played flawlessy by Beatty and Hoffman. And then they go to the desert, and they start hanging out with Charles Grodin and the boy-girl and the blind camel, and things get all wacky. And it’s not that it stops being funny, but it is a bit jarring, and as entertaining as the second and third acts are, I think there’s a part of every viewer that wishes we’d stayed in New York with the subtler, quirky stuff.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Showgirls (1995)
DIrectoR: Paul Verhoeven
PREMISE: “I’m so excited … I’m so … grinding-on-Special-Agent-Dale-Cooper-in-a-swimming-pool.”
TAKE (U.s.): $20.3M
CONTEXT: 13 Razzie nominations in 1996. There were only 12 categories that year.
CASE: I’ll probably get kicked in the balls for this somewhere down the road, but Showgirls is fine. Pretty-Woman-meets-Center-Stage-meets-a-porno. My wife and I recently baked chocolate-chip cookies and watched this and both felt the same way. The acting gets the job done, and if you can weather arbitrary chimp attacks, Kyle MacLachlan’s George McFly hair, and Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon dance-fighting their dominatrix-y nipples at each other, the story’s interesting enough.
PUTATIVE TURKEY: Howard the Duck (1986)
DIREctoR: Willard Huyck
PREMISE: An extraterrestrial duck helps save Earth from encroaching space-demons.
TAKE (U.S.): $16.3M
CONTEXT: Executive producer George Lucas was reportedly in serious debt mid-’80s, but fully expected the pricey Howard to bring him back. When it didn’t, pal Steve Jobs helped by buying, for $10M, Lucas’s fledgling computer-
animation division. Said division eventually became Pixar Animation Studios.
CASE: Now this is how you make a flop. Big-budget special effects, seriously rushed-sounding scriptwork, too much adult content to be a kids’ flick, but not enough of anything else to appeal to folks over, say, 14 — this one was a dud waiting to happen. Not that it isn’t worth watching at least once, for the curious; just steel yourself for a truckful of duck cracks (“You’re a dead duck,” “No more Mr. Nice Duck”) that wouldn’t pass muster in a Ninja Turtles cartoon, lots of Tim Robbins pity, and two Lea Thompson-centric moments that leave that whole Marty McFly I-innocently-wanna-lay-my-son thing in the dust in terms of palpable awkwardness: In one, Thompson’s Beverly finds a tiny condom in a sleeping Howard’s wallet (shudder). Oh, and flick ends with an honest-to-God searing electric-guitar solo, courtesy of Howard. Pretty breathtaking, in the altogether.
VERDICT: Turducken •
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