KEVIN COSTNER’S THE POSTMAN (1997)
Budget: $80 million
Lifetime Gross: $17,626,234
Critical Mass: “It’s hard to believe that the same man who directed a modern classic, Dances With Wolves, could be responsible for something this horribly mishandled.” (James Berardinelli, Reelviews)
Autopsy: In 1991, Kevin Costner won a Best Director Oscar for his debut work on Dances With Wolves. After the production disasters of Waterworld (directed by Kevin Reynolds), Costner returned to the director’s chair with The Postman. Set in post-apocalyptic Middle America, the movie was a failure in every way possible, “winning” five Golden Raspberry Awards. The author of the novel upon which the film was based, David Brin, compares watching the movie to “having a great big Golden Retriever jump on your lap and lick your face while waving a flag tied to its tail. It’s big, floppy, uncoordinated, overeager, and sometimes gorgeous.” Kevin Costner, however, still stands by The Postman. “I always thought that it was a really good movie,” he told The Huffington Post this year. “It was a pretty funny movie set against the idea of somebody stepping up. But in this case, it’s a humble guy who’s nothing but a liar!”
Postscript: Kevin Costner returned to the western genre in 2003 with Open Range, co-starring the great Robert Duvall. The film received strong reviews and a modicum of commercial success. His plans to return to directing with A Little War Of Our Own fell through due to funding issues in 2011, though Costner found major success on the small screen as the star, producer, and driving force on the award winning 2012 western mini-series, Hatfields & McCoys. While he continues to produce for both film (Black Or White) and television (Yellowstone, The Highwaymen), Costner has assiduously avoided the director’s chair.
FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK’S THE TOURIST (2010)
Budget: $100 million
Lifetime Gross: $67,631,157
Critical Mass: “This woefully botched mystery-adventure-thriller-caper-romance-comedy, or whatever it was meant to be, is no fun at all.” (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal)
Autopsy: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s career peaked in 2006 when he helmed the brilliant The Lives Of Others. Remarkably, this was his first film, and it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007. Next stop Hollywood, right? Kind of, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the German director delivered his next film. “After The Lives Of Others, my life changed so drastically that I just knew that whatever decision I took would probably be the wrong one,” Von Donnersmarck laughed to FilmInk in 2010. When The Tourist arrived, Henckel Von Donnersmarck had just finished writing a screenplay for a dark dramatic thriller, but he quickly changed gears. The Tourist was a remake of the French film, Anthony Zimmer, which starred Yvan Attal and Sophie Marceau. Prior to production, Tom Cruise, Sam Worthington and Charlize Theron were circling the project. Finally, dream casting came when Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp committed. Prior to shooting, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) was looking to replace the talented German on the film. The finished film struggles to capture the right tone, and Depp – trying to play the everyman – ends up looking a little bland. Jolie fairs a little better, but the chemistry between the stars is underwhelming. Kicking himself now, Paul Bettany turned down Colin Firth’s role in The Kings Speech due to his commitments with The Tourist. Ouch!
Postscript: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck eventually made an impressive comeback in 2018 with the acclaimed epic historical drama, Never Look Away. Perhaps indicating where his best work could be done, the film saw Von Donnersmarck shun Hollywood in favour of a return to his native Germany.
RICHARD KELLY’S SOUTHLAND TALES (2007)
Budget: $17 million
Lifetime Gross: $275,380
Critical Mass: “I was dazed, confused, bewildered, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me.” (Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times)
Autopsy: Identified as a generation-defining masterpiece, 2001’s Donnie Darko introduced Richard Kelly to the world. Released in the same year as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it told the tale of a young man troubled by thoughts of a coming apocalypse and visited by a giant rabbit, and made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal. Though it played in art houses, Donnie Darko developed a committed cult following, and its writer/director was heralded as the new kid on the block. His second film, Southland Tales, has been described as a production debacle, and it didn’t even receive a US release. “The story is set in a futuristic Los Angeles as it teeters on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster,” Kelly has said of his intended masterwork. Meandering, pointless, and difficult to watch, the film was at the very least widely ambitious. That said, Southland Tales was so badly received at The Cannes Film Festival that Kelly was forced to make extensive cuts. On re-release in 2007, the film bombed. “Yeah, it was exhausting,” Kelly told FilmInk of his experiences on Southland Tales. “I knew that with my third film, I needed to make something commercial. It was essential for me to work within the system. You can only swim upstream so long before you drown!”
Postscript: So far, Kelly has directed said “commercial” film – the curious 2009 thriller, The Box – and had a writing credit on Tony Scott’s Domino. Despite constant rumours about possible projects, it’s sadly now over ten years since Richard Kelly’s last directorial effort.
MICHAL LEHMANN’S HUDSON HAWK (1991)
Budget: $65-70 million
Lifetime Gross: $17,218,080
Critical Mass: “This may be the only would-be blockbuster that’s a sprawling, dissociated mess on purpose. It’s a perverse landmark: the first postmodern Hollywood disaster.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
Autopsy: Heathers, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was an indie hit. A satire about the high school in-crowd produced pre-Columbine, it was a film for its time. Producer, Joel Silver, was looking for fresh meat, and described the film’s director, Michael Lehmann, as “a very skillful kid.” Lehmann’s subsequent sole venture into Hollywood blockbuster territory was with the 1991 misfire, Hudson Hawk. A post-Die Hard Bruce Willis is credited with the story idea and a script that underwent constant change throughout the making of the film. Originally marketed as an action film, Hudson Hawk is best defined as a quirky, eccentric comedy. “The release of that movie was really painful for me,” Lehmann told Movie News. “I was a young filmmaker. I thought that I could take the action adventure genre and completely fuck with it. That was the idea. We just got punished brutally. It almost completely ruined my career. I had to walk around for a couple of years with my head down and suffer basically a certain kind of humiliation. I just have no perspective on that movie.”
Postscript: Since Hudson Hawk, Lehmann has steered away from blockbusters, instead directing the likes of The Truth About Cats And Dogs, Airheads, 40 Days And 40 Nights and Because I Said So. Now primarily a director of TV, Lehmann has helmed episodes of Dexter, American Horror Story, Big Love, Snowfall, Jessica Jones and True Blood.
KARYN KUSAMA’S AEON FLUX (2005)
Budget: $80 million
Lifetime Gross: $25,874,377
Critical Mass: “I hope that Charlize Theron was paid heaps of money to play this cardboard character. And what on earth was the director of Girlfight, Karyn Kusama, thinking when she agreed to direct it? I’m getting heartily sick of this kind of filmed comic; there’s nothing original about Aeon Flux…it doesn’t even look good!” (David Stratton, At The Movies)
Autopsy: Karyn Kusama made her indie debut with Girlfight – starring Michelle Rodriguez as a tough-luck boxer – at the age of 27, for which she won the Director’s Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival, as well as The Prix De La Jeunesse at The Cannes Film Festival. Her second film – the Charlize Theron-starring big budget flop, Aeon Flux – almost destroyed Kusama’s career. The sci-fi flick (based on MTV’s animated series) begins with a Blade Runner-style voiceover, which lends credence to Kusama’s assertions that she did not receive final cut on the film. “Aeon Flux was a huge enough studio movie to completely guarantee that when things went south, they didn’t just go south, they went directly into the bowels of hell,” Kusama told Shock Till You Drop. Peter Chung, the creator of the original cult anime, slammed the final product: “The movie is a travesty, and seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theatre made me feel helpless, humiliated and sad.”
Postscript: Karyn Kusama’s career quickly course corrected after Aeon Flux: she made the interesting Diablo Cody-scripted horror flick Jennifer’s Body, featuring Megan Fox, in 2009; the creepy drama The Invitation in 2015; and the exemplary Nicole Kidman cop thriller, Destroyer, in 2018. In between those features, she has helmed episodes of top flight TV shows like Masters Of Sex, The Man In The High Castle, Billions and Halt And Catch Fire.
BILLY BOB THORNTON’S ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (2000)
Budget: $57 million
Lifetime Gross: $15,540,353
Critical Mass: “As this year’s literary adaptations go, All The Pretty Horses comes a lot closer to being a truly bad movie than The Perfect Storm did, yet it would be hard to argue that the two are not the year’s most disappointing in terms of trampled hopes.” (Mike Clark, USA Today)
Autopsy: In 1996, Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed and starred in the little movie that could, Sling Blade. “We thought that maybe ten people would see that movie,” he has said. The film received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and made the little known Thornton a star. For his second feature, Thornton chose Cormac McCarthy’s sprawling novel, All The Pretty Horses, the first cut of which ran at 162 minutes. According to Thornton, the studio had initially agreed to a three-hour film, but Harvey Weinstein, the infamously bullish head honcho of Miramax (and now, of course, a Coronavirus afflicted convicted rapist), then insisted that the film be cut down to less than two hours. “It’s amazing what you can lose in thirty minutes,” Thornton later commented. “I’ve only done one big budget movie as a director, and there is much more interference. If there’s something wrong in the film business, that’s what it is. That’s not to say that there aren’t good big budget movies, and that it can’t be done, and that some people aren’t interfered with.” The much promised director’s cut has failed to materialise.
Postscript: Since All The Pretty Horses, Thornton has continued to work prolifically as an actor, but has only directed two little seen but well regarded features, Daddy And Them (2001) and Jayne Mansfield’s Car (2012).
JOHN SINGLETON’S POETIC JUSTICE (1993)
Budget: $14 million
Lifetime Gross: $27,515,786
Critical Mass: “If Singleton stumbles, it is over ambition and not the complacency of a new Hollywood hotshot riding a trend.” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)
Autopsy: 1991’s Boyz N The Hood – a powerhouse social drama that put the spotlight on gang violence in south central LA – was a revelation. It launched the career of its star, Cuba Gooding Jr., and its 23-year-old director, John Singleton. He was the first black director ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Singleton described his follow up film, Poetic Justice, as a “street romance.” Despite boasting the poetry of Maya Angelou and the presence of Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, it failed to spark the same kind of resonance as Singleton’s first film. This time, the critics were not so effusive in their praise of his talents, but to the film’s credit, its box office returns doubled its budget. Jackson was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards, and won two MTV Awards. “I wrote Poetic Justice for Janet Jackson,” Singleton told Essence. “When I first met her, I told her that I wanted to do my next movie with her. Critics and frustrated sisters hated on her, but I understood it; not that many movies came out with black female leads.”
Postscript: Since Poetic Justice, Singleton’s films were a mixed bag. Higher Learning was overly melodramatic, Baby Boy was engaging but underwhelming, and Shaft and Four Brothers showed a more conventional filmmaker at work. 2 Fast 2 Furious and Abduction (“A blockhead espionage thriller from director-for-hire, John Singleton,” howled The Village Voice), meanwhile, were both truly dreadful. Singleton also directed impressive episodes of TV shows like Snowfall, Empire, Billions and American Crime Story before sadly passing away in 2019 at the age of just 51.
VINCENT GALLO’S THE BROWN BUNNY (2003)
Budget: $10 million
Lifetime Gross: $366,301
Critical Mass: “An excruciatingly embarrassing display of ego and ineptitude.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Autopsy: The word “auteur” is bandied about a lot these days. The likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen and Tarantino have been given this label. But looking at the specialist jobs that Vincent Gallo performs on his films, you could argue that he is the dictionary definition of an auteur. Actor, writer, director, composer, cinematographer, editor and costume designer. In the semi-autobiographical Buffalo 66, he delivered an idiosyncratic story of comic redemption boasting the dream cast of Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Mickey Rourke, and Ben Gazzara. His follow-up, The Brown Bunny, was labelled notorious after its much-publicised premiere at The Cannes Film Festival. The infamous “real” fellatio scene performed by Chloe Sevigny has overshadowed the rest of the film. “I seem to question myself every day about why I crossed the line in The Brown Bunny, but I really believed in the director as an artist,” Sevigny has since reflected. “I guess that I just thought, ‘I could go to this extreme once’, but perhaps it was the wrong choice. I’m not gonna beat myself up over it anymore.” The Brown Bunny was seen by many as one long, self-indulgent bore topped off with a hardcore porn scene.
Postscript: Gallo’s only film since The Brown Bunny has been 2010’s Promises Written In Water, which the director has personally chosen to suppress after poorly received screenings at the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals. “The film should be allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies of the public,” Gallo has said.
FRANK MILLER’S THE SPIRIT (2008)
Budget: $60 million
Lifetime Gross: $19,806,188
Critical Mass: “I’m just trying to figure out why Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson arrive on screen decked out in swastikas and jackboots. Nothing in the logic of the film explains it, but then, to use the phrase, ‘the logic of the film’ when talking about The Spirit may be to take the ‘oxy’ out of ‘oxymoronic.’” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times)
Autopsy: 2005’s Sin City, co-directed by Frank Miller (the author of the original graphic novel source material, and a legend in the world of comic books) and Robert Rodriguez, was a comic book brought to stunning life. An ode to film noir, it was beautifully rendered in black and white with flashes of colour. Miller’s sophomore (and solo) effort – an adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic book, The Spirit, about a masked crime fighter patrolling the mean streets of New York – though similarly visually impressive, failed miserably in the script department. Lead, Gerard Macht, is a tad bland as the titular crime fighter, and Samuel L. Jackson is hamstrung by reams of idiotic dialogue as the villain of the piece. It’s a pity that the narrative so poorly services the inspired look of the film. “I have one really great advantage in doing this movie,” Frank Miller told GQ upon the release of The Spirit. “I spent years in training directly from Will Eisner. He and I really did share two profound loves: one was for New York, the other was for beautiful women.”
Postscript: Frank Miller reteamed with Robert Rodriguez for 2014’s under-appreciated sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, but has not directed another film since. He has worked more consistently as a producer for TV, while continuing his reign as a comic book king.
BRUCE ROBINSON’S HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1990)
Lifetime Gross: $418,053
Critical Mass: “The film’s weakness is that it hates advertising so much that it can’t shut up about it. The film would be better if it kept all of its images and performances, and threw out a lot of the dialogue, which explains at great length things that need no explaining.” (Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times)
Autopsy: 1987’s Withnail & I, though not a huge hit on its initial release, is now hailed as one of the funniest British films of all time. The film succeeds because director, Bruce Robinson, lived and breathed its semi-autobiographical content. Robinson’s follow up feature, How To Get Ahead In Advertising – about a creatively blocked advertising exec (Withnail & I’s Richard E. Grant) whose frustrations manifest themselves physically as a huge talking boil (!) on his shoulder – was an uncompromisingly bleak take on capitalism, and suffered from critical ridicule upon its release, but has since found cult acceptance. The film was provocative, but failed to make Bruce Robinson many friends. “After ‘The Boil Film,’” the director has said, “I just couldn’t get a job.”
Postscript: Paramount massacred the cut of his next film, Jennifer 8, an intriguing thriller starring Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman. After this experience, he packed up his bags and left Hollywood. After a nineteen-year absence, Robinson returned with an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, with Johnny Depp. It hit theatres in 2011, and was an interesting failure. It cost $45 million, but only made $13 million back. Robinson has not directed since, but is allegedly in pre-production on a TV series entitled Blackout.
DES MCANUFF’S THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE (2000)
Lifetime Gross: $26,005,820
Critical Mass: “The whole affair has a painfully self-conscious, self-referential air. Jokes land with a thud, and so, alas, does Rocky, who seems to have forgotten how to fly.” (Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Autopsy: After the intriguing 1998 adaptation of Balzac’s Cousin Bette starring Jessica Lange, theatre director, Des McAnuff (famed as the former artistic director of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival), was curiously tapped to helm Robert De Niro in a slapstick comedy based on a popular cartoon. Whereas Cousin Bette was a stately period piece, The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle was meant to be outlandish comic book fun. It may have been funny if it was made in the sixties with a modest budget, but it fizzled on release in 2000. Playing the villain, Fearless Leader, against a moose and a squirrel, De Niro was reduced to doing a Travis Bickle impression in one heart-crushing scene, while his co-star, Rene Russo, was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress. But when Total Film asked De Niro if he felt that he was tainting his legacy by appearing in films like the kids’ flick, Shark Tale, and The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, the legendary actor didn’t appear too regretful. “I had fun in those movies,” De Niro replied. “Erm, I had a good time on Rocky And Bullwinkle.”
Postscript: After losing $50 million, Des McAnuff returned to the theatre, where in 1996 he received The Lawrence Olivier Award for Best Director for his stage production of Tommy. His only subsequent filmic dealings have been with cinema broadcasts of his plays, Caesar And Cleopatra (2009) and The Tempest (2010).
DENNIS HOPPER’S THE LAST MOVIE (1971)
Lifetime Gross: $19,781,879
Critical Mass: “The Last Movie is a wasteland of cinematic wreckage: undisciplined, incoherent, a structural mess.” (Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times)
Autopsy: The New York Times’ Vincent Canby labelled Dennis Hopper’s first film, Easy Rider, “the definitive road picture of the sixties: beautiful, cool and numbingly inarticulate.” The film was so financially successful that the director won the artistic freedom to make his second film, with The Last Movie backed by major studio, Universal. “We were down in Peru in this old Inca village, and Dennis was as crazy as he ever was,” co-star, Kris Kristofferson, told The Guardian of the film’s shoot. “I love Dennis, but back then he was the most self-destructive guy that I’d ever seen! He antagonised the military and all the politicians. It was crazy.” Best described as an avant-garde western, Hopper was looking to make another counterculture smash. What was delivered were 108 of the strangest movie minutes ever bankrolled by a major studio. On release, Canby described the film as “an extravagant mess.” Post the film’s award-winning showing at The Venice Film Festival, Universal requested that Hopper re-cut the movie. He refused, and the film was never properly distributed. The Last Movie’s director long regretted that he couldn’t restore the film to how he originally intended for it to be seen.
Postscript: Hopper didn’t direct again until 1980 with Out Of The Blue. Although he would never achieve the same level of success that he found with Easy Rider, Hopper made a couple of interesting films in his later years, with the controversial Colors and the neo-noir thriller, The Hot Spot. The counterculture legend passed away in 2010.