Film Flops I Have Seen (2)

I am continuing this series of film flops with this completely unnecessary remake, from 2004. As a child, I went to see John Wayne starring in ‘The Alamo’, in 1960. It was a more-or-less factual account of the famous defence of the Alamo Mission in 1836, against the superior Mexican forces led by Generalissimo Santa Anna.

For some reason best known to themselves, Touchstone Pictures, and producer Ron Howard, decided to do a by-the-numbers remake, 44 years later.

They scraped together a decent, if far from stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid in the main roles. Both leading men had been in far better films, and it is fair to say that both were in the autumn of their film careers. It is also fair to say that the ‘target market’ for such a film had already seen the 1960 original, probably many times. And like me, they undoubtedly retained a fondness for it. Besides that, it was on TV all the time, dirt cheap on DVD, and there was zero demand for it to be remade.

From anyone, anywhere.

Disney refused Howard’s over-optimistic budget, and the original cast members Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke left during the financial arguments. The director insisted on complete historical authenticity, and many details were changed from the John Wayne version. Deciding on presenting a ‘serious’ view of the Alamo battle proved to be the film’s undoing.

The critics didn’t like it. The public didn’t like it. Too much detail, too much talking, and action sequences that were not as exciting and involving as the 1960 film. With the critical panning, the audiences stayed away in droves. It wasn’t 1960 anymore, and they had all seen bigger and better historical blockbusters. Then there was that John Wayne original. It was undeniably a better film. More stirring, more involving, and overall more exciting.

The film lost a fortune. It cost $107,000,000 to make, and took less than $23,000,000 worldwide, including DVD sales.
That left it at number six, of the all-time film flops.

I watched the film the year after its US release, and can only agree with the critics, and the public. Another pointless remake.

Will they ever learn? I suspect the answer is “No”.

Film Flops I Have Seen (1)

It might not surprise you to find out that many films have been financial disasters, failing to recoup a fraction of the cost it took to make them. I haven’t seen all of them, but I have watched my share over the years. It is easy to see why some of them failed, but many of the biggest cinema disasters are actually excellent films. In this occasional series, I will be giving my own opinion about some of the cinema industry’s greatest flops.

The Cotton Club (1984)

This film made no impact at the box office, despite the presence of the big star, Richard Gere. It was also written by Mario Puzo of ‘Godfather’ fame, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who made ‘Apocalypse Now’, so the talent was lined up. Along with Gere, we got Bob Hoskins, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lawrence Fishburne, Nicholas Cage, and Allen Garfield. At least the cast list looked promising.

Then there was the story. The Mob, A Harlem Club, famous gangsters, Jazz, great music and dancing. Add to that the faithful recreation of the club itself, and the feel of 1930s New York, and it had to be a winner. When it was released, the critics loved it, and it got nominated for a slew of awards. It won a Grammy for the soundtrack, but that was all.

But the public didn’t get it. They didn’t flock in their droves to see it, and they didn’t rush to buy the VHS tape of the film either. It had taken five years to make, and the notoriously over-spending Coppola had been lavishing in excess of $250,000 a DAY on the sets, costumes, and musical arrangements alone. As well as arguing with the studio, Coppola took money from Las Vegas hoodlums and international arms dealers to keep financing the project. Puzo was replaced as the screenwriter, and one of the investors was killed in an alleged drug gang hit, when he failed to pay them the promised return.

It all started to go wrong, very quickly.

The film grossed less than $26,000,000 worldwide, leaving the investors out of pocket by an estimated $77,000,000.

I went to see the film, and I actually really enjoyed it. It was not by any means a ‘great’ film, but I liked the period atmosphere, most of the acting, and all of the music.
Sadly, my entrance fee wasn’t enough to save it from being number 23 on the list of all-time film flops.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

The best camera ever?

(I woke up thinking about this today, but this post is only of interest to photographers and camera collectors)

In 1986, Canon brought out a new top of the range SLR manual focus film camera. It was designed in Germany, and really looked sleek and desirable.

I already owned three other Canon cameras at the time; the basic T50, the slightly better T70, and the older and heavier A1. So, I couldn’t justify the expense of buying this new professional model.

But I really wanted one.

Two years later, it had come down in price enough for me to rationalise getting one. I already had plenty of compatible lenses, so bought it ‘body-only’.

This was a film camera, not digital. It took four AA type batteries in the base, and all picture taking and composition had to be done through the optical viewfinder. There was automatic film advance and rewinding, so no film lever to spoil the look of it. Canon had added the luxury of multi-spot metering, and shadow and highlight control. There was also the ‘safety shift’ feature, which adjusted shutter speed or aperture to make sure you got the shot in awkward lighting conditions.

Despite being aimed at professionals and serious amateurs, it also retained the ‘Program’ option, for easy point-and-shoot photography. A window at the top supplied extensive information about settings, saving the need to look through the viewfinder to see them.

The back of the camera was an object lesson in simple design, with everything you needed, and no more.

It was very solidly built, and though weighty, never felt awkward or heavy in the hand. It could be bumped and dropped, and still work, making it a hit with some professionals.

Despite already owning some lenses and a flash that all worked on this new model, I bought a 24mm wide angle lens, and a 400mm telephoto prime too.

I have never enjoyed using a camera so much, before or since.

Many years later, in 2000, I felt that I now needed autofocus, as my eyesight was not what it was. I traded the camera in, with all the other bodies and lenses, and bought a new Minolta film SLR with one lens, a 24-105mm. As the man in the shop took away all my traded kit, I felt a real pang of regret watching it go.

This summer, I decided to buy one again. I got a decent used version on Ebay, and a compatible lens from the website of a camera shop.

I doubt I will ever use it. Film is a lot of hassle and expense these days, and my eyes are even worse.

But I just love to look at it.

Afternoon Double Feature

(This is a fictional short story, in 1230 words.)

There was nothing quite like an afternoon double-feature on a weekday. Hardly anyone in the cinema, no queues for the ice-cream lady, and if the films were good, you could sit through them again for the next showing, no questions asked. Fair enough, the first film would be average at best, but the main film would almost always be worth seeing. In between, there would be a newsreel, then perhaps even a few cartoons.

The shorter Easter holiday was always boring for Nigel. For one thing, the weather was often awful, so the usual walk around the seafront was out of the question. Mum was at work until almost six, so he wandered around with his door key hidden under his shirt, suspended from some itchy string. And there was nothing on the television until the evening, but then Mum always decided what to watch anyway.

Stuck in his room reading encyclopedias, world maps, or old comics could only be tolerated for so long. So when Mum gave him his pocket money on a Monday, he knew what he wanted to spend it on, even if that meant having hardly anything left for the rest of the week.

The old Roxy had seen better days, that was for sure. It could do with a coat of paint, and some of the seats were as hard as a park bench. But it was only a ten-minute walk from home, and the interior still retained some of the grandeur of when it opened, in 1926. Almost forty years later, it was showing its age in more ways than one. The projector made a ticking sound as the film was playing, and four decades of tobacco smoke had turned the once pristine plaster-work ceiling a strange shade of orange.

Still, two films, an ice cream, and some small change from his pocket money. That was worth it.

He was outside the doors before they opened. One middle-aged lady stood in the queue ahead of him, her bag stuffed with knitting. It was obvious that she would be whiling away her time knitting a jumper or something, as the films played out in front of her. A man came and stood behind him. He was smoking a pipe, and looking straight ahead. Nigel made a mental note to avoid both of them when it came to choosing a seat. The knitting needle clicking would drive him mad, and the clouds of smoke from the pipe would choke him.

Just as the doors opened, a teenage couple turned up at the end of the short queue. The girl was giggling, and Nigel knew for sure that they would be spending their time snogging in the back row. They probably wouldn’t even remember the films. The uniformed commissionaire looked like a sergeant-major, his grim nod signifying that they could go in. As he stood behind the knitting lady at the cash desk, Nigel was hoping that Pamela would be taking the money. She lived a couple of streets away, and though she must have been at least thirty, she was so glamorous. Like one of the film stars on the screen where she worked.

He was happy when he got to the desk, and saw her big lipstick-covered smile. That meant she would be selling the small tubs of ice cream in the intermission, and he would get to see her again.

Inside, the lights were still on, and Nigel chose a seat at the end of a row, halfway up. Before the first film began, around a dozen more people turned up, coughing and rustling bags of sweets bought in the foyer. Just as the lights dimmed, a thin man came and sat right next to him, placing a musty-smelling overcoat across his knees as he sat down. Nigel had spent enough time in the cinema to know that this didn’t bode well. In an almost deserted afternoon showing, there was usually only one reason why an older man on his own would sit next to an an unaccompanied twelve year-old boy.

As soon as they started to show the coming attractions of next week’s big film, he quickly moved seats, right across to the small single row on the far side. If the man followed him over there, he would have to resort to going outside to tell the commissionaire. Fortunately, the thin man got the message, and stayed put.

The first film was a western. Nigel could take or leave those as a rule, but this one was quite good, especially for the B-film. And it was in colour too. He had checked the poster outside, and noticed the film was called ‘Geronimo’. It starred Chuck Connors as the famous Apache chief, not someone he had ever heard of. But he certainly looked the part, and there was just enough action, between the boring stuff set on the reservation. Still, it certainly didn’t escape his notice that Chuck was not a real Indian, but some other familiar faces made it feel good enough.

Once the lights were on again, Nigel was waiting with his cash, hoping to be the first to spot Pamela arriving with her tray of ice creams and drinks. She usually picked a spot in the middle, on one side, but if nobody walked down to her, she wandered around the aisles in case anyone called her over. On afternoon screenings, business was slow, and by the time she arrived, the lights were going down for the newsreel. So she switched on the small light that illuminated her tray, and the bottom part of her face.

Nigel was the only one who bothered to go and give her some trade. He smiled at her and politely asked, “Vanilla tub, please”. He could smell her perfume, and as she handed him the small tub and wooden spoon, he liked the way her nail polish caught the light from her tray. When she handed over his change, her fingers felt warm, and she gave him a brief smile, the lipstick appearing to be rather congealed on her mouth.

How many times he had imagined kissing those lips.

The ice cream was gone before the main film started, and he dropped the paper tub and spoon on the floor. As the opening credits rolled, he naturally recognised the name of the star, Dirk Bogarde. It was a black and white film, which felt rather flat after the bright colours of ‘Geronimo’, but as it was a world war two film, he was sure he would like it. And it was called ‘The Password Is Courage’, so he was certain it would be full of action The smoke from the cigarettes and pipes of the adults was rising and swirling. Nigel watched as it passed though the beam of the projector, creating a blue haze.

But despite being about the war, and starring the famous Dirk, the film was a disappointment. It was about a soldier who keeps escaping from German POW camps, and Nigel started to wonder if it was supposed to be a comedy. He felt cheated by the title, and even thought about leaving before the end. But he stuck it out.

Walking out into the dark of a dull and chilly evening, he pulled up the small collar of his jacket against the cold. Thinking about next week, he managed a smile.

They were showing ‘The Longest Day’ at The Roxy, and that looked really good.

Guest Post: Tasker Dunham

David is a British blogger who goes by the name Tasker Dunham. He has his own site, which you can access from this link.


When my son was about eight, he wanted to know what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too frightening to say.”

No eight year-old would let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too terrifying to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ….”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks, with him trying out the names of various films, or anything he imagined might be the name of a film, beginning with ‘e’, and me continuing to repeat I was not going to tell him until he was eighteen.


“I’m not saying.”

“The Epidermis?”

“I’m not saying.”


Wherever did he learn these words?

“The Exorcist,” he said one day, eyes bright in triumph.

“Look, I’ve already said, I’m not going to …”

“Oh! For goodness’ sake,” my wife said, “just tell him and then we can put an end to this stupid game. Otherwise we’ll have all gone mad long before he’s eighteen, assuming we’ve not strangled you first.”

“It’s too frightening to think about,” I persisted lamely, “even the title.”

It must have been around April, 1974, that I first saw ‘The Exorcist’ at the ABC Cinema in Leeds, soon after its U.K. release. Masses wanted to see the most talked about film of the year, and Leeds audiences were swelled by swarms of Bradfordians whose local council had banned it.* Three of us from the rented house we shared, myself, Nick and Brendan, joined the queue that stretched along Vicar Lane, creeping slowly forwards. A clergyman and a couple of helpers walked up and down handing out leaflets, trying to persuade us that the film was the work of the devil. I saw no one leave the queue. Upon reaching the door we were told “Sorry there’s only one seat left, and it’s the last one”. Nick and Brendan pushed me forward and went off to the pub trying to hide their relief. I nervously went inside to see the film on my own.

I have never been so petrified in all my life. I sat in the dark clutching the arm rests, flesh creeping, my face twisted into a rictus grimace, involuntary tears streaming from my eyes. It is the quality of the sound as much as the images that makes cinema so powerful, and they had the volume right up, especially as the nauseating voice of the ancient demon Pazuzu rasped from the throat of Regan, the twelve year old girl possessed by his spirit.

Nick and Brendan saw it fairly soon afterwards, and a few weeks later we decided to see it again. The second time the cinema was three quarters empty. A few rows in front of us, on her own, was an old witch of a woman rustling a big bag of popcorn, cackling loudly at just about everything she saw and heard.

“Whoa! What a shot!” she shrieked as Regan’s vomit blasted Father Damien Karras, the exorcist, in the face, lodging behind his spectacles like a clump of green pus. “Bet you can’t go round again,” she squealed after Regan’s head had spun full circle, cracking and crunching the neck. And she just snorted hysterically when the demon told Karras how his mother spent her time in hell.

It put the film in an entirely different light. For the next few weeks our house grated to the sound of Exorcist impersonations. Loud rasping shouts of “Karras, Karras,” scraped like sandpaper from room to room as Brendan raucously yelled “your mother cooks socks in hell” all the way down the stairs from his attic bedroom. It is a good job the walls of our terraced house were thick enough to avoid disturbing the neighbours. It was very rare to hear any sound from them at all.

It truly was a shocking film, but it also has hilarious aspects some will always refuse to acknowledge. In Miami, Father Mark Karras, an Orthodox priest who had conducted exorcisms for real, sued the creators of the book and film, alleging they had based the story on him, having fictionalised his name, personality and professional life. He claimed that some characteristics of the film were so offensive he had been exposed to public humiliation, embarrassment, scorn and obloquy. William Peter Blatty, the book’s author, was forced to testify that he had never previously met nor heard of him.**

And then there were the town councillors and eccentric individuals who wanted the film banned, such as the outspoken Dr. Rhodes Boyson, a Conservative Member of Parliament with unruly mutton-chops and a pantomime Lancashire accent (all Lancashire accents are pantomime to Yorkshire ears), who had previously been a headmaster. Indeed, in a large number of towns, including Bradford, the film was banned, resulting in ‘Exorcist Bus Trips’ taking groups of people to neighbouring towns where it was showing. Later, the video version was not officially cleared for sale in the U.K. until 1999.

But my favourite proscriber has to be the Tunisian government who banned the film on the ground that it presented “unjustified” propaganda in favour of Christianity.*** I wonder what their idea of anti-Christian propaganda might be.

* * *

In the end I did hold out without revealing the film’s name until my son was eighteen, in spite of his repeated assertion “It’s The Exorcist, isn’t it?” and my refusal either to confirm or deny it.

“Only someone with an autistic spectrum disorder could be so obstinate,” my wife kept complaining. I know they secretly think I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome, and I also know they must be wrong, because if I did have Asperger’s Syndrome, I would find it difficult to empathise with people, and I wouldn’t know what they were thinking, would I?

Shortly after conceding that my son had been right all along, the film was shown very late one night on television, and I videotaped it.

“Don’t you dare watch that while I’m in the house,” my wife said. I doubted I dared watch it while she wasn’t. Eventually, one morning when alone, I found the courage to put it on. I could only bear it for ten minutes before I had to turn it off due to boredom.

* It was rather inconsistent of the two city councils because two years earlier we had to go to the Bradford Odeon to see ‘A Clockwork Orange’ which had been banned in Leeds.

** The Times 30th May 1974 page 9. Father Mark Athanasios Constantine Karras later became the Archbishop of Byzantium.

*** The Times 11th March 1974 page 2 and 25th February 1975 page 6.

Reproduction of The Exorcist poster is believed to constitute fair use.

Check out David’s site on Blogger, and give him a welcome to the WordPress community!

Just been watching…(112)

Snowpiercer (2013)
***No spoilers***

I watched this film a long time ago. It was late at night, and I admit I had consumed some wine. I remember thinking it looked good, and enjoying the big-name cast. Then last week, I read a review of the film on the blog of the lovely Abi.

That jogged my memory, and I decided to watch it again, courtesy of Netflix.

The general idea is that scientists on Earth decide to stop global warming. They do this by adding a newly-discovered chemical to the atmosphere, designed to reduce the temperature considerably. Of course, it doesn’t go as planned, instigating a worldwide ice age that kills off most of the life on the planet. The last remaining humans are surviving aboard a very long train, the Snowpiercer of the title.

The train is designed and owned by the man known simply as ‘Wilford’. He has invented a self-perpetuating engine, and the train runs a circular route around the world, taking one year to complete each circuit on a specially-built track. Inside the train, social structure is tightly maintained, with a poor underclass right at the back, and the wealthy and influential closer to the front. Those at the back are forbidden from moving forward, policed by a private army that controls them rigidly. They are fed a ‘protein jelly’, and kept in relative darkness, regularly counted and ordered around.

Their treatment causes stirrings of rebellion of course, and they look to two leaders to organise a revolt. One is the elderly sage, Gilliam. (John Hurt) A wise spiritual leader, he is assisted by the tough warrior, Curtis. (Chris Evans) The people at the back of the train are a mix of types and races. Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Black, alongside the white people. Those nearer the front, the soldiers, and the privileged few, are mostly white of course.

So we have a post-apocalyptic thriller, with overtones of a concentration camp film, and also making some statements about racism, equality, and the desperation of mankind in a near-impossible situation. “Seen it all before!”, I hear you cry. I know. But this time, it’s on a train!

And the train is good. Despite a stellar cast, including those already mentioned but adding an almost-unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, and the reliable Ed Harris, the train is the star. It feels at all times as if they are on a real train. The different sections, getting ever grander closer to the front, are very well imagined, and the exterior shots of the train in the snow and ice covered landscape are beautifully rendered by CGI. So, is it a good film?

Not really. That will teach me not to watch a film very late at night with red wine on board my system. Despite that great cast, some well executed set pieces, and the marvellous train, it often feels just plain silly. And it is ultimately pointless too. There are much better post-apocalyptic/dystopian dramas out there. This one looks a lot better than it actually is.
Unless you like trains, of course…

Kingdom Of The Little People

On Friday, I was sent a link by my close friend, Antony. Some of you will know that he used to work with me before I retired, and he is also an excellent photographer. He took the photo on my ‘About’ page, and many of the close-ups of Ollie that I have featured.

The You Tube film he sent me lasts only 17 minutes, and I urge you all to take time to watch this very affecting documentary.

The Kingdom Of The Little People is a theme park in mainland China. All the entertainers who perform there, and the staff who work there, are short people. Some have dwarfism, and others stunted developmental growth. Not one of them is any taller than four feet tall. They all live together at the Kingdom’, and perform shows for tourists to earn a living. They earn a good salary, about the same as an IT professional in the local region around Kunming.

The theme park opened in 2009, and is owned by a wealthy entrepreneur. The shows performed include dancing and singing, as well as scenes from traditional fairy tales, and Chinese folklore.

The whole concept of the park has been attacked and vilified by many western newspapers, as well as organisations like The Little People Of America, and Handicap International. It has been compared to a ‘human zoo’, and accused of exploiting little people, of and exposing them to ridicule. The British actor, Warwick Davis, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism, has called for the theme park to be closed down. He is well-know for his acting roles, including parts in ‘Willow’, ‘Star Wars’, and ‘Harry Potter’.

But if you watch the film, you may feel, as I did, that the opposite is true. In a country with no opportunity for such people, and where they are often publicly mocked in villages and big cities alike, this park has become a refuge, even an oasis for them. They live with people like themselves, and get well-paid to entertain the visitors. Their accommodation may seem basic and cramped by western standards, but they have most modern conveniences, form loving relationships, and enjoy sport and the usual recreational activities. Most of all, they have confidence, companionship, and a sense of self-worth that they lacked before going to work at ‘The Kingdom’.

I loved this film, and it really got to me. I watched it again before posting this, and didn’t change my mind.