Mess or masterpiece? 

What do movie critics know? Ultimately, nothing more than you do. No matter how astute a critic's grasp of the medium, no matter how solidly his or her critical criteria rest upon a foundation of historical research and aesthetic theory, there's no way to factor out pure human emotion. All of us — even veteran film reviewers — have had the experience of loving a movie that was trashed by the critics or loathing one that others showered with praise. Cinema history is dotted with examples of features that left critics and/or audiences indifferent, baffled, even hostile upon release, only to achieve classic status once their adoring public finally found them. (Famous former flops include The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life, Sweet Smell of Success, and Touch of Evil.) And then there are films too quirky to make the canon, movies that never quite shake their naysayers' slings and arrows, but which eventually garner an appreciative cult anyway. We asked critics to make a case for films they adore that they feel got the bum's rush from reviewers and/or audiences the first time around. If you haven't already, we hope you give these second-chance movies a first chance on video or DVD.

Keeper of the Flame
Directed by: George Cukor
Starring: Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
Genre: Drama
Sample critical reaction: "A significant failure." — Time

In early 1942, critics and audiences alike were captivated by the odd-couple pairing of brisk New Englander Katharine Hepburn and easy-going Midwesterner Spencer Tracy in MGM's Woman of the Year. Although the pair's subsequent 26-year romance was never publicly acknowledged during the married Tracy's lifetime (thanks to the amazing cooperation of the press), the palpable sparks between the two actors leapt off the screen. The public demanded more, and MGM, expert at creating long-lasting on-screen teams (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, William Powell and Myrna Loy), eagerly complied, hurrying the second Hepburn-Tracy pairing into production. Keeper of the Flame hit screens in December 1942.

No one knew what to make of it. It was Tracy-Hepburn vehicle, but romance wasn't at the center of Keeper — instead, the film fastened on the evils of fascism lurking in America. The result disappointed and confused many; even the film's director, George Cukor, dismissed it as "a waxwork affair." Keeper very nearly sank the fabled screen team before it had begun. Even today, most Hepburn-Tracy devotees don't embrace it.

But Keeper of the Flame is more than just a fascinating, dated curiosity. Based on an I.A.R. Wylie (itself very loosely modeled on the exploits of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), the film opens just after the mysterious death of a nationally beloved mogul, Robert Forrest, and the suspicious behavior of his aloof widow, Christine (Hepburn). Investigative reporter Steven O'Malley (Tracy) hopes to unearth the "real story" behind Forrest's death but instead comes to realize the much darker goings-on during his life. Gradually, O'Malley discovers that Forrest sponsored a number of pro-fascist groups under the guise of patriotic organizations, which he hoped would help sweep him into the Oval Office. Christine's cover-ups and evasions are intended to preserve American idealism at the height of the global struggle against fascism.

Although Keeper's script, by Hepburn stalwart Donald Ogden Stewart, admittedly falls into periods of talkiness (always a danger in politically themed films), Cukor creates a compelling, unusually grim look that suggests impending doom, a mood not even costume designer Adrian's sumptuous outfits for Hepburn could lift. The funereal tone, while at odds with circa-'40s MGM's usual bubbly fare, evokes what the film really is: a mystery and, eventually, a horror story, something audiences of the day never fully grasped. The darkness is further heightened by the unfulfilled romantic tension between Christine and O'Malley, but the fact that Hepburn and Tracy's characters never come together doesn't disappoint; rather, it lends an edge to their scenes and intensifies the inevitable tragedy.

For all its dark seriousness, Keeper of the Flame actually has more in common with the sophisticated wit of Woman of the Year than with Hepburn and Tracy's next film, the fluffy, romantic Without Love (which, not surprisingly, audiences adored). Keeper presented Hepburn and Tracy as adults in a complex world — something Hollywood was not much in the habit of allowing, even during the somber days of World War II. With MGM's lush production values, a fine supporting cast, and a challenging script, Keeper of the Flame remains an underappreciated oddity in the Hepburn and Tracy oeuvre. — Luisa F. Ribeiro

Directed by:
Jack Hill
Starring: Pam Grier
Genre: Action
Sample critical reaction: "[L]eaves a viewer with the happy thought that [Pam Grier, in the role of the title character] can get back to nursing and away from films like Coffy." — A.H. Weiler, The New York Times

All right, there is something a little dubious about a chauvinistic white guy directing a blaxploitation movie — particularly one in which the merciless busty female protagonist disrobes frequently, jabs her foes with dirty syringes, conceals razor blades within her towering Afro, gets into a hair-pulling catfight, and removes her ex-lover's crotch with a shotgun blast. This did not go unnoticed by critics who, back in 1973, panned director Jack Hill's Coffy, a low-budget action flick starring newcomer Pam Grier. They bristled at the movie's more lurid aspects, if they bothered reviewing it at all (films on the exploitation circuit were often ignored by the mainstream press). Despite this, Coffy went on to become the 12th-highest-grossing picture of that year — remarkable, considering that the flick was relegated to only one or two theaters in even the biggest cities. Coffy usually played at drive-ins or grindhouses in blighted neighborhoods, where it shared the marquee with cheesy kung fu "chop-sockies" and sexploitation flicks like The Candy Snatchers.

Over the years, blaxploitation cheapies have won some hipster/film-geek affection (thank you, Quentin Tarantino), but they haven't really earned any more respect than they got in 1973 — Coffy and its ilk are regarded as kitschy, campy curiosities, not great cinema. Coffy doesn't wear classic status easily; it's wildly sadistic, equating vigilantism with empowerment, and ballsy enough to suggest that the woes of the inner city are not all the Man's fault. There are plenty of black folks conspiring to keep other black folks down, the movie argues, as long as the price is right. "Black, brown, or yellow, I'm in it for the green," snarls Coffy's corrupt congressperson beau. Sounds like angry-white-guy rhetoric to me.

But for all its sleaze and cartoon silliness, there's something uplifting about Coffy. For starters, the film minted Grier as both a sex symbol and an action star (albeit briefly) at a time when black women were generally not considered qualified to be either. And, unlike with similar films of the period — paeans to pushing and pimping such as Superfly and The Mack — the audience isn't maneuvered into identifying with a criminal. Coffy's a nurse, albeit a complete badass: She's a one-woman hit squad who goes on a killing spree to wreak vengeance on the lowlifes who got her 11-year-old sister hooked on smack. As she picks off an endless succession of dealers, runners, pimps, hit men, police, and politicos, Coffy realizes that corruption is pervasive and basically insurmountable — which doesn't deter her in the least.

Between all the blasting guns, jiggling flesh, cheesy special effects (when Coffy blows one smack-hawking fat cat away, his "head" disintegrates like a be-wigged melon), Coffy somehow manages to be not just a visceral movie experience but an inspirational one. Our heroine works her outsider status to her advantage. She doesn't succeed despite the fact that she's chronically underestimated, she succeeds because of it. It never once occurs to any of the schmucks she eventually blows away that she poses a threat to them, and because they never saw it coming, they never stood a chance. Grier's hiphugger-clad honey pot takes on an inherently corrupt patriarchal system and beats the odds. Damn. You can't mess with that. — Adele Marley

Directed by:
Tobe Hooper
Starring: Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart and Steve Railsback
Genre: Science Fiction
Sample critical reaction: "Lifeforce is a movie about Halley's comet, and if we're lucky, we won't see another like it for 75 years. It's an expensive cheap exploitation movie . . . that will bore even the most hard-core of sci-fi devotees." — Paul Attanasio, The Washington Post

Some films seem bound and determined to make themselves critically indefensible. With 1985's Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper, famous for his cannibal-family parable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, takes Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires and regurgitates a film that's simultaneously obvious and obscure, heady and dumb as a rock, and, just to be really confusing, some sort of messy masterpiece.

The plot alone is so ridiculous that it defies explanation, but here goes: A space shuttle assigned to fly by Halley's comet, commandeered by Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback), encounters a vast biomechanical alien craft. Inside the craft, Carlsen and crew discover countless naked aliens — looking a lot like depilated models — apparently in suspended animation. Carlsen finds one buxom nude alienette (Mathilda May) especially enchanting; for the rest of the film, she will simply be dubbed "Space Girl."

Carlsen resists Space Girl's charms and returns to Earth. His crew doesn't; she sucks the life out of them for their troubles. (Life-sucking here involves a kiss, crackling blue lightning, and finally, a desiccated corpse.) Space Girl comes to Earth, where she shape-shifts her way through London, sucking as she goes. In an amazing moment worthy of Todd Haynes at his weirdest, Space Girl "becomes" fusty Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), who then French-kisses an understandably confused earthling male in front of a huge David Bowie poster.

Anyway, half of London's population become Space Girl-infected ravenous zombies in no time flat, their blue souls sparking through the night sky to the silent mothership. But all this is mere setup for Hooper's main concerns: the weirdly incestuous (don't ask) love affair between Space Girl and Carlsen and a revision of Christian doctrine that leads to the lovers rutting in a ruined church, complete with what was then considered high-tech transubstantiation effects.

One can understand why critics had little patience for Lifeforce. Paying homage to pop stars and classic Hammer Studios horror movies makes it postmodern; being earnest about its overt psychosexual and Christ-resurrection subtexts makes it simply nuts. But in an ultimately wondrous way. Hooper creates a sense of discomfiture and awe from his dumbfounding assemblage of resurrection rewrite, zombie film, incest parable, and effects extravaganza. With its iffy sexuality and arbitrary plotting, Lifeforce is alternately scary, silly, and unforgettable. Most importantly, and despite all the above, it makes sense while it's happening. In other words, Hooper was able to replicate the experience of dreaming on film. Which is pretty damned remarkable. — Ian Grey

The Hudsucker Proxy
Directed by:
Joel Coen
Starring: Paul Newman and Tim Robbins
Genre: Comedy
Sample critical reaction: "Clever but cold, a heartless mechanical gizmo." — Joe Brown, The Washington Post

The reasons why I love what is perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen's least loved film, the 1994 box-office bomb The Hudsucker Proxy, boil down to one gag. In this homage to/parody of classic screwball comedy, evil industrialist Sidney J. Mussburger (played with cigar-chomping gusto by Paul Newman) nearly falls out a skyscraper window; his pant legs are grabbed by a helpful employee, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), and Mussburger hangs head-first far above the pavement. As the seams in his waistband begin to rip, his thoughts wander back to his most recent visit to his tailor, Luigi. The sweet little old Italian (Ernest Sarracino) tries to persuade Mussberger to let him double-stitch his new suit. No, Mussburger growls, accusing Luigi of wasting his time and money. We flash back to the present, as Mussburger's seams continue to rip and doom seems nigh. But wait — suddenly, we flash back, to Luigi bent over his work. (It's no longer Mussburger's point of view, but dammit, now's not the time to split hairs!) "Mistah Muss-ti-burger, he so nice," the tailor muses in a hysterically broad Chico Marx lilt. "I give him double stitch anyways!" Flash forward — the seams hold!

Think about how that gag came about. The Coens wrote it (with collaborator Sam Raimi). They auditioned actors to play Luigi. They had sets dressed and lit, rolled cameras, paid union wages for all of this effort. They showed the scene to actual grownups who work for studios and banks, to test audiences full of people who have never heard of Chico Marx because he wasn't in Weekend at Bernie's. And somehow, this childishly goofy sequence made the final cut.

The rap against Hudsucker — about an average schmo (Robbins) who's put in charge of a major corporation in order to depress its stock price, then bumbles into a Great Idea (the Hula-Hoop) — is that it's too self-indulgent. Sure, it's beautiful to behold — an art deco wet dream, in fact — but it's really just 111 minutes of the Coens snickering into their fists, making stupid gags for the sake of making stupid gags, deconstructing Frank Capra clichés just because they can.

Well, yeah. It is self-indulgent. But maybe that's just another way of saying that it's the Coens' most personal film — and regardless, it's funny as hell. The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coens cracking each other up, egging their actors on with cries of "Make it bigger!" (a particularly reckless thing to do when one of the actors is Jennifer Jason Leigh), and spending a truckload of money doing it. (This film, their fifth, was produced by action kingpin Joel Silver, and reportedly cost a then-lavish-for-a-comedy $25 million.) You could argue that such a windfall would be better spent, oh, curing disease or feeding the hungry or teaching kids to read, and you'd be right. But filmmakers aren't in the business of curing disease or feeding the hungry. And reading isn't good for box office. — Heather Joslyn

This feature originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper. Send comments to [email protected]

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