Perhaps the most intriguing of today’s Blu-ray releases is Magical Mystery Tour , the Beatles’ 1967 television film that was famously roasted by critics, which cemented its reputation as some sort of epic folly by the lads from Liverpool. But here’s what’s interesting about watching Magical Mystery Tour now, with that common wisdom in mind: contrary to popular opinion, it’s kind of great. This sort of thing happens all the time: imperfect, odd, or merely unconventional films are released and get labeled as some sort of flop, and the reputation sticks. But some films haven’t earned their bad rep, and after the jump, we’ll take a look at Magical Mystery Tour and nine other movies that are better than you’ve heard.
Magical Mystery Tour
Mystery Tour came at a moment when the Beatles really needed a home run: they were following one of their biggest successes, the earth-shifting release of Sgt. Pepper the previous summer, but needed to show a strong sense of forward momentum after the unexpected death of manager Brian Epstein that August. Their idea was to make their own film for television, which they would star in, write (inasmuch as a script was “written”), and direct. The homemade effort premiered on the BBC the day after Christmas, and the critics tore it to pieces. That reaction made it something of a rarity in the United States, where it wasn’t widely seen until syndicated television airings in the 1980s and an eventual home video release. When you watch it today, there’s no question that it meanders quite a bit, and when it comes to comedy, the boys (more specifically Paul, who’s rumored to have done most of the directing) are no Richard Lester. But it’s got a loose intimacy and freewheeling energy, and as with most musicals, most of the maligned narrative stuff is just filler between the musical numbers, which are marvelous: the evocative “Fool on the Hill,” the trippy “Blue Jay Way,” the surreal “I Am the Walrus.” (They’re especially great when experienced via the Blu-ray’s robust DTS HD-Master Audio mix.) And there’s something wonderfully gonzo about John’s grinning, over-the-top performance — he’s either fully committed to this silliness, or he’s parodying it as broadly as he can. Bonus: Look for all the eventual “Paul is Dead” clues (black carnation!).
Reporting about the business of movies was still fairly uncommon in the early 1980s, which is part of why the productions of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate generated so much ink: here were two filmmakers of great acclaim (Coppola for the Godfather films, Cimino for The Deer Hunter) who had apparently taken on a blank-check attitude about their latest productions, which spun over schedule, over budget, and out of control. Coppola’s film, however, received mostly positive reviews, and shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Cimino’s film wasn’t so lucky: after spending something like three times the original budget, critics were not kind to the muted, deliberately paced film. “Heaven’s Gate,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” Similar pans followed suit. Even after an extensive re-edit, Heaven’s Gate grossed a fraction of its inflated budget, essentially ended Cimino’s career (and the age of the auteur in Hollywood), and became shorthand for out-of-control productions. But time has been kind to Cimino’s revisionist Western epic, with cinephiles coming to praise its epic scope and distinctive visual beauty. This fall, it’s getting a DVD and Blu-ray release from the prestigious Criterion Collection, and it was recently given reconsideration screenings at the New York and Venice Film Festivals. At the latter, the film played “more than ever like a fittingly bleak apotheosis of the New Hollywood, an eccentric yet elegiac rethinking of the myths of the West and the western, with an uncommonly blunt take on class in America.” The source of those kind words? Dennis Lim — of The New York Times.
New York, New York
Martin Scorsese also had Cimino-sized high expectations working against him when he made New York, New York — it was his much-ballyhooed follow-up to the critical and (surprisingly) commercial success of Taxi Driver, with that film’s lead Robert De Niro back in a starring role. Opposite him, Scorsese cast Liza Minelli, who’d won the Academy Award for Best Actress a few years earlier — and who was a perfect fit for Scoresese’s idea of making an homage to the classic musicals of Hollywood’s golden age (including those directed by Minelli’s father Vincente). But when New York, New York was released, critics and audiences didn’t know what the hell to make of it — it had big production numbers, and was shot on soundstages in the classic Hollywood style, but it was an oddly depressing and dramatic effort, with the emotionally and even physically abusive relationship between De Niro’s bandleader and Minelli’s songstress coming off uncomfortably real. (It also had the misfortune of opening in the shadow of Star Wars, which pretty much obliterated any and all competition.) Seen now, however, it’s easier to grasp what Scorsese was up to in New York, New York: a fusion of the old and the new, a traditional musical with a Cassavetes edge. “Feel-bad” musicals aren’t quite the anomaly they were in 1977, and this look at the pressures of fame can now be seen as not only ahead of its time, but as one of Scorsese’s more personal pictures.
Much like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar became the go-to reference for production gone awry (when Kevin Costner’s Waterworld went over the $100 million mark, for example, industry writers quickly dubbed it “Fishtar”). But was the movie itself bad, or was it just reported as such? Writer/director Elaine May certainly wasn’t a bad filmmaker — her previous efforts A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid were delightful, and her stage act with fellow future filmmaker Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) was endlessly funny. She cast Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as nightclub singer/songwriters who get mixed up in political shenanigans in a fictional African country. What went wrong? Make no mistake — the film went over schedule and over budget, and stories of endless takes and production woes became Hollywood legend. But the film itself, seen today (if you can see it — it’s never been released domestically on DVD), is less like the turkey of its scathing reviews and more like Janet Maslin’s notice for the Times: “It’s a likable, good-humored hybrid, a mixture of small, funny moments and the pointless, oversized spectacle that these days is sine qua non for any hot-weather hit. The worst of it is painless; the best is funny, sly, cheerful and, here and there, even genuinely inspired.”
A couple of weeks back, we discussed the strange case of Michael Lehman, the Heathers director whose big break went big bust. The film in question was Hudson Hawk, a caper comedy starring Bruce Willis (who also co-wrote the story), which received brutal notices and only grossed $17 million on a $65 million budget, putting a quick end to Lehman’s time in the big leagues. But if we’re being honest, it must be said: your film editor always rather liked Hudson Hawk, which is bloated and out of control, sure, but is also wildly weird and full of witty touches, from the gonzo performances of Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant to the Hope-and-Crosby chemistry of Willis and Danny Aiello to the charming musical interludes (yes, there are charming musical interludes) wherein our thieves run a clock on their jobs by singing tunes like “Swingin’ on a Star” and “Side by Side.” Is Hawk a great movie? Oh, no. But it’s got its own peculiar style and a sense of humor, and that’s more than you can say for most of its studio contemporaries.
Here’s another one where the setup sounded too good to be true: Steven Spielberg directing a Peter Pan movie, with Robin Williams as Peter and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. And if you talk to anyone who was a teenager or older when Hook came out in 1991, they’ll tell you what a giant disappointment it was, how it was dull and dumb and bloated and a giant disappointment. But people who were kids when Hook came out, or who were kids in subsequent years and saw it at that age, love this movie. And let’s face it, they’re who it was made for, and they don’t know from high expectations — they know it’s bright, cheery, high-spirited fun, with some big laughs and good swordfights. And who knows, if you approach it that way now, even as an adult, you might be surprised by how enjoyable it is.
When Steven Soderbergh decided to turn Stanislaw Lem’s novel into a $50 million studio sci-fi movie/star vehicle for George Clooney, he had to know it was a lose-lose situation, right? Casual moviegoers drawn in by the “Clooney on a space station” premise were bound to be either confused or bored to tears by the film they got, which was heavy on talk and intellect, but light on laser battles. And art house audiences could only compare Soderbergh’s take on the material to Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1972 film adaptation, and it would inevitably suffer in said comparison. But Soderbergh’s stripped-down take (which is barely half as long as Tarkovsky’s) is a fascinating, and mostly successful, attempt at fusing these seemingly incompatible elements; the storytelling is clean and efficient, particularly in its marvelous opening sequences, the Big Themes are dealt with in a delicate and approachable fashion, and the performances are terrific. Clooney has seldom been better, and the perpetually underrated Natascha McElhone is as good as ever, but the picture is stolen by Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies, who contribute startling and haunting supporting turns.
The Hudsucker Proxy
When the Coen Brothers received the highest critical praise of their career (plus two Oscars) for their 1996 black comedy Fargo, it was widely regarded as their “comeback” picture. What were they coming back from? The Hudsucker Proxy, their 1994 big-budget studio comedy that became one of the most notorious box office busts of the decade. Producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) had wanted to work with the Coens for years, since their low-budget debut Blood Simple, but Joel Silver didn’t make little movies. So the Coens saw the opportunity to use those Silver Dollars to finally make The Hudsucker Proxy, a period screenplay they’d been working on for well over a decade with friend Sam Raimi. When all was said and done, the film cost around $40 million, so its $2 million box office take must’ve really stung — as did the mediocre reviews, which mostly complained that it was all style and no substance, all homage and no originality. Those sour notices, and the “comeback” narrative of Fargo, have caused most to dismiss Hudsucker — which is a shame, because it’s a wildly funny and utterly inventive picture, filled with the kind of wry humor and quotable dialogue that made their Big Lebowski such a treat four years later. Plus, it’s got a wonderful bit of scenery-chewing by Paul Newman (one of his last performances), and a screwball Jennifer Jason Leigh performance that we’ll never get tired of.
Josie and the Pussycats
Audiences steered clear of Josie upon its original release in 2001, and critics were (to put it mildly) skeptical, but can you blame them? The long list of cartoon series that had been turned into films was not exactly bursting with quality entries, and this adaptation of the Hanna-Barbara cartoon show (and Archie spin-off comic) looked like pretty weak sauce. What those audiences who dismissed it and the critics who misread it failed to understand was that director Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (Can’t Hardly Wait) were actually cooking up a sly spoof of pop music (and pop culture), circa the Britney-and-Backstreet era. That satirical edge, combined with its time capsule quality, gives it an extra kick when seen now; as Nathan Rabin writes of Josie in the AV Club’s “My Year of Flops” feature (an invaluable tool for sifting out good movies — or, as they call them, “secret successes” — from dreck), “Josie may not be a pure, perfect, or uncompromised film, but it is funny, clever, and sweet… Undoubtedly the single most ambitious, subversive, and satirical feature-film adaptation of an Archie comic, Josie And The Pussycats gives us a sly, sustained spoof of consumerism, infectious pop songs, and cute girls in tight pants. What’s not to like?”
Run, Ronnie, Run
Fans of Mr. Show have long heard creators David Cross and Bob Oedenkirk bash Run, Ronnie, Run, their troubled attempt to make a feature film out of the cult HBO series; the movie centered on Ronnie Dobbs, the perpetually on-the-run “star” of the Cops-styled reality show Fuzz, but had many of the expected detours and sidebars. Its screwy road to fruition — through production, promised and delayed distribution, and final release in that most shameful of forms, “straight to DVD” — could fill a book, but it basically boils down to a struggle for control of the film between Cross/Oedenkirk and the heads of New Line Cinema, with director Troy Miller somewhere in between and ultimately (it seems) siding against the show’s creators. But Oednkirk has long since given up the fight (“I’m no longer arguing for a movie I don’t really like, for a cut that’s a little better but still isn’t very good,” he told the AV Club a few years later), and loyal followers have surrendered to the idea that what could have been their Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or at least their And Now For Something Completely Different) is just some mangled throwaway. The only trouble with that notion is that, troubled production or no, Run, Ronnie, Run is a frequently funny movie — often a hilarious one, particularly in its more subversive segments that torpedo the narrative entirely (like its uproarious opening scenes or the above musical interlude, for example). It’s not a perfect comedy, or even as much fun as watching three prime episodes of Mr. Show back to back. But it’s also nothing for Cross and Oedenkirk to be ashamed of.