So apparently it’s 1993 again, because there are two competing Wyatt Earp movies in development. Upon reading this, we immediately checked to make sure we weren’t perusing the movie news page on Prodigy via dial-up connection. But no, we’ve not entered some kind of wormhole: instead of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp racing each other to theaters, we’ve got Tombstone co-star Val Kilmer signing on to the indie Western The First Ride of Wyatt Earp, while Warner Brothers has picked up the spec script for the fictionalized Earp-and-Holliday adventure tale Wild Guns.
Parallel thinking is nothing new in Hollywood — hell, there’s half a dozen (no exaggeration) Peter Pan-related projects in development now, and nearly as many re-bootings, re-imaginings, and re-whatevers of Wizard of Oz and Snow White in the pipeline. Sometimes executives, writers, and producers just have the same ideas (or the idea to go back to the same ideas) at the same time. Often, competing projects will disappear as one gets into production first — but sometimes that game of Hollywood chicken leads to multiple versions of, basically, the same movie or TV show making it all the way to release (witness Deep Impact and Armageddon, Dante’s Peak and Volcano, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, and many more). Usually, the better project ultimately wins the respect of critics and audiences — though there have been a few occasions when the second place runner is unfairly overlooked. Join us after the jump for a few unjustly forgotten runners-up.
Though their total box office revenues are higher (thanks mostly to those endless Shrek sequels), DreamWorks Animation has always been seen as the redheaded stepchild of the computer-animated world when compared to the gold standard of Pixar. DreamWorks, to a great extent, set up that perpetual competition from their very first feature project: Antz, a comedic look at the insect world, which hit theaters in October 1998 — about a month before Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life . The rivalry between the projects became a bit of a pissing match between the two studios; DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg had been at Disney until 1994, and there were whispers abound that he knew about A Bug’s Life and had deliberately intended to take on his old employers with Antz, even moving the film up from its original March 1999 release date in order to beat the Pixar picture into theaters. In the years since, as the Pixar brand has attained near-legendary status, A Bug’s Life has remained a popular classic, while Antz is all but forgotten. And there’s no doubt, A Bug’s Life is the better movie — the animation is crisper, the storytelling sharper, the pathos more genuine. But there’s plenty of good stuff in Antz; in the leading voice role, Woody Allen is doing the kind of “classic Woody” acting schtick that he doesn’t really do much anymore (in many ways, Antz is more of a vintage Allen movie than the films he was doing himself at the time), while Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken (among others) turn in memorable supporting performances. Is Antz a classic? No. But it’s fun.
The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s much-ballyhooed return to series television in 2006 was the object of a fierce bidding battle between CBS and NBC. The Peacock won, which then presented a problem: they were also being pitched 30 Rock , a new sitcom created by Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey and produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL’s longtime producer and network VIP. The problem? They were basically the same show — a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of an SNL-style late-night sketch comedy show — though Fey’s was a half-hour comedy and Sorkin’s was an hour-long drama. NBC said to hell with it and put both shows on their fall schedule.
Going into the season, Studio 60 was far and away the more hyped (and more expensive) series, but ratings dropped off sharply after the terrific pilot episode, and critics quickly turned on the show — mainly because Sorkin couldn’t write sketch comedy. Like, at all. Sorkin made the mistake of featuring long pieces of the show-within-the-show, and while the sketches in the pilot were supposed to be strained and mediocre, the program supposedly vastly improved once protagonists Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Trip (Bradley Whitford) took over. Trouble was, it didn’t. The sketches were unremittingly terrible, and we saw them all, at length, usually followed by a scene where someone complimented Matt or Danny on how great or funny that sketch was. The reality of the show crumbled; what were all these people, delusional?
Fey savvily chose to barely show anything from 30 Rock’s The Girlie Show — and she made the show-within-the-show’s lackluster quality a running joke. 30 Rock is still on the air, five seasons and counting, while Studio 60 barely made it through the season. But it must be noted that, after setting that huge problem aside, there’s all kinds of great stuff in Studio 60: the skilled playing of the ensemble cast (which also included Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Nate Corddry, Sarah Paulson, and Steven Webber), the intelligent storytelling, and Sorkin’s trademark, whip-smart rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. And that’s the thing: he is a funny writer, he just writes a different kind of funny — based on timing and characterization, not broad spoofs and belly laughs. By the end of Studio 60’s run, he had pulled back the sketches and was doing some genuinely complex and fascinating things with the show; its four-part series finale is a masterful piece of cross-temporal narrative construction. But by then it was too late. No one was watching, and the show had already been given the axe. Sorkin, though, proved a good sport about it; he made a memorable cameo on 30 Rock a couple of weeks back, doing a “walk and talk” with Fey’s Liz Lemon and giving Studio 60 a tongue-in-cheek shout-out.
In the history of “fast track that!” hot properties, there’s probably never been one less likely than “the story of how Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood.” But that’s exactly what happened in 2005, when competing films on the Manhattan-dwelling writer’s trips to Kansas went into production; Bennett Miller’s Capote hit theaters that fall, earning massive critical kudos and Oscar nominations (including a win for star Philip Seymour Hoffman), while Douglas McGrath’s Infamous was held back for about a year, to avoid confusion. Flavorpill’s own Judy Berman professes to prefer Infamous to Capote, and while we can’t quite get behind her on that (Sandra Bullock, let’s face it, is no Catherine Keener), Infamous does have some genuinely worthwhile elements — the sparkling recreation of New York’s social elite, Toby Jones’s brilliant lead performance, and Daniel Craig’s complex, nuanced portrayal of Perry Smith — that make it a better film than its reputation might lead you to believe.
The ol’ “master thief does one last job” story wasn’t exactly a fresh one in 2001, when two films with similar cast make-ups and construction hit theaters within a few months of each other. Both Frank Oz’s The Score and David Mamet’s Heist featured an aging professional paired with a young hothead by a smart but oily middleman. But the box office reception ended up being all about the casting: the trio was played by Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, and Marlon Brando in The Score, while Heist put Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, and Danny DeVito into those roles. The Score took in $71 million; Heist topped out at $23 million, and that’s a shame. While The Score is a serviceable and frequently entertaining picture (c’mon, how could a movie starring both Don Vitos and Mr. Fight Club not be?), Heist is a fresh, ingenious, tightly constructed little thriller, with Hackman doing his best grizzled man-of-action bit (God, do we miss him) and Mamet matching some of his snappiest, smartest, funniest dialogue (“You’re not that smart, how’d you figure it out?” “I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, ‘What would he do?’”) with a surprisingly sharp eye for realistic action.
Two hour-long ensemble medical dramas, both set in Chicago, both from high-powered creators… Sure, let’s put ‘em on at the same time, why not? CBS and NBC decided to take their game of “med show chicken” all the way down to the wire in fall of 1994, when the David E. Kelly-created Chicago Hope and the Michael Crichton-spawned ER faced off on Thursdays at 10pm. CBS ultimately blinked when ER, powered by NBC’s then-unstoppable “Must See TV” Thursday night line-up and some of the best reviews of the season, became a breakout smash; they moved Chicago Hope to Mondays. It was forevermore seen as the “also-ran,” but let’s not forget, it ran for a robust six seasons, persevering in the face of additional reschedulings and cast shake-ups that brought in (and took out) the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Peter Berg, Carla Gugino, Lauren Holly, Eric Stoltz, and Mark Harmon. It might not have been the phenomenon that ER was (in its first decade, anyway), but taken on its own terms, it was awfully good television.
Terrence Malick hadn’t directed a film in two decades (since 1978’s Days of Heaven) when he finally returned to the screen in 1998, with this adaptation of James Jones’s World War II novel. He assembled an all-star cast (including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, and George Clooney; even more big names didn’t make the final cut) and set about making his infantry-man’s view of the “Great War.” The problem was, The Thin Red Line arrived in theaters six months after Steven Spielberg’s box office and critical sensation, Saving Private Ryan . Though similar in subject, the two pictures couldn’t have been more different in tone and style: Spielberg’s film was a fairly traditional story, albeit one told with visceral intensity, while Malick’s picture was (true to his style) meditative, poetic, and rather deliberately paced. While a hypnotic and moving tone poem, when compared with the water cooler movie of the year, it couldn’t help but come up short. Owen Gleiberman proved prescient in his Entertainment Weekly review: “The Thin Red Line could, I think, turn out to be this season’s Beloved, a movie too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences.” Though the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, it took home none, and its domestic box office topped out at $36 million — still not bad for a 170-minute art film, mind you. It’s finally getting its due as of late, with a high-profile DVD and Blu-ray last year from the Criterion Collection.
Though it debuted several months before NYPD Blue , that ABC drama seemed to grab up all the kudos for documentary-style realism and grown-up storytelling that were due to Homicide: Life on The Street, the NBC police procedural adapted from the book by future Wire mastermind David Simon. In all fairness, there was T&A on Blue. But Homicide was the smarter, more nuanced show (and far more even, in terms of long-term quality), with a stellar ensemble of complicated characters and long-running conflicts. The show lasted seven seasons, but never really caught on with audiences; it mostly stayed on the air thanks to the never-dying support of TV critics (and, to be fair, the network execs who liked having such a prestige show on their schedule).
Body-switching comedies were all the rage in 1987 and 1988, with no less than four featuring basically the same plot: Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and Big . The latter — though it wasn’t, technically speaking, a “switch” movie (Tom Hanks’s Josh Baskin is a little kid who becomes a grown-up overnight, rather than swapping bodies with another, older man) — was far and away the biggest critical and commercial success of the bunch, racking up over $150 million at the box office and two Oscar nominations. That’s as it should be — Big is a wonderful movie. But there’s something to be said for Vice Versa, which stars Judge Reinhold (then a minor star thanks to his sidekick turns in the Beverly Hills Cop movies) and Fred Savage (whose Wonder Years had debuted earlier that year) as a divorced businessman father and his neglected son. They switch bodies via a wish and an ornamental skull, and hijinks ensue. It’s formulaic (and dated) as all get out, but it is also charming and genuinely funny. “It’s a movie that finds its humor in many small moments of truth and accurate observation,” Roger Ebert wrote, “and if there is even a certain gentle knowledge of human nature in this film, you know what? That is not necessarily wrong for a comedy, not even in the cynical weathers that surround us.”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a giant hit in summer of 1986. The tale of a high school superstar who calls in sick in order to show his girlfriend and his best buddy a good time struck a chord, primarily due to the wit of John Hughes’s script and Matthew Broderick’s fourth-wall-breaking performance. Neither of those elements could be recaptured for a weekly television show, but that didn’t stop NBC from trying. However, it took them four years to make it happen, and in the meantime, the upstart Fox network developed Parker Lewis Can’t Lose , a blatant Ferris Bueller rip-off that lasted three seasons. Neither show was a work of art, but Bueller was far wittier, and sported a less obnoxious lead — though neither Parker’s Corin Nemec nor Bueller’s Charlie Schlatter (previously known as the lead in 18 Again!) could be confused with the charismatic Broderick. But Ferris, which was canned after 13 installments, is mainly known today not for who they found to replace Broderick, but for who filled in for Jennifer Grey as sister Jeannie: an unknown actress named Jennifer Aniston.
The Hughes Brothers’ post-apocalyptic tale of a wandering nomad struggling to survive hit theaters on January 15, 2010 — less than two months after John Hillcoat’s The Road , which told a very similar story. Hillcoat’s picture came with a stronger pedigree (being an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and all), and was far more serious and downbeat in nature. It’s a great film, but not exactly a treat to watch. The Book of Eli functions as a more conventional actioner and is therefore a little more audience-friendly. That said, this is one strange movie; it’s far more gonzo than you might expect from a major studio and a marquee star, and the sheer peculiarity of its storytelling makes it inarguably compelling. “The movie keeps you watching and generally engaged,” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis admitted, and we concur.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop , released in January of 2009, was an asinine fatty-fall-down comedy from the sludge factory known as Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions; it grossed a staggering $146 million domestically, which is just about enough to make us give up on humanity altogether and crawl into a cave with some canned goods. But the worst casualty of Blart’s success was not our collective dignity. It was Observe and Report, Jody Hill’s pitch-black Seth Rogen comedy, which followed Blart into theaters in April. Though also the story of a mall cop, Hill’s brilliantly subversive picture couldn’t be more different. Hill, who co-wrote and directed The Foot Fist Way and co-created Eastbound and Down (his star in those projects, Danny McBride, cameos here), crafts a grubby, dirt-under-its-fingernails effort that is closer to Taxi Driver than Paul Blart. Uncompromisingly violent, dark, and more than a little disturbing — yet frequently, explosively funny — Observe and Report is one of the more daring films to see a major studio release in recent years. But audiences preferred the dumb, family-friendly version: Observe did about 1/5 the business of Blart.