Oh the humanity! Oh the obliquity!
“Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place ‘Love Stinks’ will not be opening.
“It’s the kind of movie you fidget your way through, holding your wristwatch up to the light of the screen to see how long you have survived, sort of like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. It’s a macho test to survive this miserable, vile clunker.
“You, lucky moviegoer, can always walk out. You can demand your money back. But pity the poor reviewer, paid to sit through it, who cannot leave but is handcuffed to his seat, with wire claws lashing his eyelids open, being forced to watch endless failed flatulence jokes, Elvis jokes and hair jokes.
“How can a flatulence joke fail? This movie shows you.
“Yes, you can demand your money back, but I can never demand back the time I gave to this sinkhole. It is time missing forever from my life and will be listed in my memoirs as my greatest regret. This is a movie that can damage you spiritually.”
Wow! I really didn’t like that movie.
But I seemed to have enjoyed writing about it. This is a constant nag to a movie critic, and one of the questions most often asked of us — “Do you have more fun writing bad reviews.” The answer, of course, is I hate writing bad reviews, but — you got me — I love writing fun reviews of really awful films.
This is the crux: Some of the most memorable movie reviews are the pans, like when Roger Ebert wrote, of “North,” “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”
Most people go to movies occasionally. The most avid rarely go more than once or twice a week. But the movie critic sees movies, sometimes several in a day. We become surfeited.
We also see a lot of un-inspired twaddle. You, the moviegoer may be mildly entertained by a mediocre movie; you can forget it soon after exposure. But the critic has probably seen a dozen rom-coms with the same plot, the same jokes, and the same actors — at least they do seem to blend together eventually into a single pair of Hugh Grants and Julia Robertses.
Imagine a light romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Mandy Patinkin, with clever writing, snappy direction and a heartwarming ending.
Then imagine that Roberts isn’t available, so you replace her with a look-alike. And then Patinkin isn’t available, either, and neither are the good writers nor a classy director.
What you have is “Love & Sex,” a film that never rises to its own ambition.
It can’t decide whether it wants to make real points about real life and love, or wants to be a low-budget imitation of a high-budget Hollywood meet-cute romance.
It is true that I wasn’t a fulltime movie critic. Mostly I covered art and music. But I was a kind of back-up critic for our regular guy, and he often gave me art films and foreign language films to review.
For this I am hugely grateful.
It isn’t simply that foreign films are better than Hollywood films, but rather that the bad French films or Italian films are less likely to be imported and distributed in the U.S., meaning my films was pre-selected for quality.
That meant, I got to see a better run of films than our poor movie critic.
But for times he was on vacation, or out sick, I wound up having to review some real dogs.
There have been so many first-rate foreign, indie and small films to come through town lately that it sometimes seems that a critic must have run out of stars to sprinkle from his pepper shaker. So it should be a relief to find a dud, but it never is.
And there are so many.
Anyone who manages to sit through “The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human” to the end and, in a masochistic exercise, remains in the theater for the credits will see the two funniest jokes of the movie — not making too strong a claim for them.
So you don’t have to squirm in your seat that long, I will reveal them here: First, the credit line says, ”This movie was shot entirely on location on the planet Earth,” and then the disclaimer line reads, ”No humans were harmed in the making of this movie.”
There you have the best this sorry exercise has to offer. You can now save your money.
Or, to turn to another one:
To call “Wicker Park” glossy is an insult to the word “glossy.” There is not a thought in its pretty little head.
And it does look gorgeous. Shot mostly in winter, its cityscapes are as romantic as Impressionist paintings. The falling snow provides a sense of motion, even when the film is dead in the water.
But it’s like watching a 90-minute fashion commercial, and with about as much character development.
You are grateful for good films; certainly, you would prefer that all the films you see are top-notch. Good films make your life better, richer, fuller. The only problem is that, for a critic, there are only so many words you can use to praise a film, and the praise can get a little numbing for your reader. How can you express your enthusiasm without seeming addled or hyperbolic? You put five stars at the head and hope your readers will notice.
And most films you see are neither very good, nor very bad. They are a bear to write about. What can you say? You won’t waste your money, but you won’t remember the film at all by next year.
A friend recently asked me to send her some of my old movie reviews for fun, and I scrolled through hundreds of them, and I was shocked at how many movies I saw, I wrote about, and yet I have not a single recollection of. They have evaporated.
But the truly awful movies: They are memorable. And they give the critic a chance to rev up the invective. We have suffered through you movie, so we are going to balance the karmic account by enjoying the review writing as much as we didn’t enjoy sitting in the dark theater cringing our way through the miserable offering.
There is a long-abused, overworked and now out-of-date word to describe Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust.”
This movie, set in Los Angeles in 1934, is as phony as a three-dollar Hollywood smile. Nothing in it rings true. Not the dialogue, not the acting, not the sets, not even the air.
Which is too bad, considering Towne was also responsible, as writer, for the best LA-in-the-’30s movie ever, “Chinatown.”
But “Dust” fails in all the ways “Chinatown” triumphed.
It’s our revenge.
“A Home at the End of the World” was made by Warner Independent Pictures, and that pretty well sums up its strengths and weaknesses. Warner Independent Pictures — that’s like Consolidated Amalgamated Home Made Pies Inc.
How can a gigantic multinational media conglomerate make an independent film? Well, it can’t.
Critics are often accused of hating movies. And there are movies we hate, but critics — and it is true for me — don’t hate movies; we love movies. And so, we are heartbroken when a movie fails to live up to its potential. And more than heartbroken, we can actually get angry about it.
Because it is so unnecessary for a movie to be as bad as some of these films are.
A tin ear is a painful thing.
Not for those who have it, but for those who are asked to review its productions.
It begins with this film’s title. Here is a story of epic sweep, recounting a heroic and desperate episode in the Mormon migrations westward into Utah. It is a tale that begs for a star like Charlton Heston, a score like “Exodus,” a cast of thousands.
And they name it “Handcart.”
The technical name for this trope is bathos. It is a sign of tone-deafness. But that is just the beginning. Throughout this two-hour saga, its makers manage to trivialize every point possible, turning genuinely dramatic events into cliches of cloying sentimentality and predictability.
So, we have to lay our cards on the table. Wretched is wretched.
When friends and relatives rib me about being paid to watch movies for a living, I only have to point them to something like “Fast Food Fast Women” to prove that there is a cost involved. This film is payback.
It’s one of the worst films of the year, a candidate for the Ed Wood Award for incompetent cinema. It’s that bad.
It isn’t only the cheapy films, or the exploitive films that cause this hiccup of disaffection. It is often the high-budget literary films that drive me to distraction.
If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with “House of Mirth.” It creases where it should drape.
You might expect a movie with mirth in the title and Dan Aykroyd in the cast to be a barrel of laughs, but there is not so much as the hint of a smile in this glum period picture made from the Edith Wharton novel about New York high society in 1905. It is Wharton with all the subtlety left out.
What is left is the worst of Masterpiece Theater: Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.
And, oh, those lines they are forced to mouth: “If obliquity were a vice, we would all be tainted.”
I like that line: “ pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.” It is bad movies that evoke such language.
So, yes, I have to admit, writing reviews of bad movies (as opposed to writing bad reviews — reviews badly written) is often a good deal of fun. Certainly more fun than sitting through the movie.
But there is another kind of film that elicits bad reviews. There are movies that rile up the moral indignation normally complacent when watching an entertainment medium. Some films are morally reprehensible.
I am not talking about taking political sides in a current debate, as if a pro-Arab film is somehow a bad film because of its message. I’m talking about something deeper than that.
And readers so often confuse the content of a film with the quality of the film. I never had more reaction — negative reaction — to a review I wrote than when I panned Meryl Streep’s “Music of the Heart.”
The events of the film had a good heart, good intentions. It was about teaching music to inner-city kids. This is an idea no one can argue against. But the movie was a cloying, sentimental lie, from beginning to end. I could not believe a pismire of it, despite that it was “based on real events.”
“Music of the Heart” is the most nakedly manipulative movie I’ve seen in years. It yanks you around from pillar to post, trying to make you grab for the hankies, but instead, it makes you squirm in your seat.
It means to make you feel good as you leave the theater, but take my word, the earlier you leave the theater, the better you’ll feel. There is no other word for the movie but ”phony.” Nothing in it is believable.
The kind of thing that made me cringe was the fantasy that a part-time temporary teacher in the New York City school system, now a divorcee from a Navy man, had enough money — despite complaining about her poverty in the film — to buy and renovate a New York brownstone.
When I see movies like this, I wonder what chumps the film industry takes us all for. How many final basketball games are we meant to sit through, wondering if the underdog will win?
The Big Game in this film is a Carnegie Hall concert, meant to save the music program in the school where Streep teaches. Will they pull it off? With the help of Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and — if they are too highbrow — Mark O’Connor?
This is not a story; it is a ritual. But even ritual must be judged by the truth that underlies it. There is nothing in this film even remotely related to real life: And I’m not just talking about how a single-mother substitute teacher with two young boys can afford to buy and renovate a house in Manhattan, building a little bit of Yuppieville in the middle of Harlem. No, I mean that no schoolchild ever acted like these children, no ex-husband ever acted like this one, no new boyfriend ever thought the thoughts of this one, no group of tiny fiddlers, spending the year playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in unison can turn around and instantly start playing J.S. Bach’s four-part counterpart on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
But what can you expect when a film sets out to press every button mechanically? There is artificial pathos at every moment, from divorce through rejection into spousal abuse and drive-by shooting.
There is even a little girl in leg braces who received inspiration from the example of Perlman. No cheap tear is avoided by director Wes Craven.
The film moves from one crisis into another by rote, using each to create a mini epic of schmaltz with each problem and resolution leading into the next, building to the Big Crisis at the end, with the Big Payoff.
Well, I heard squawks and squeals from all the fine and sensitive readers who thought I was disparaging the idea of teaching kids music, that somehow, I thought giving Harlem children violins and attention was a terrible thing.
I tried to make it clear in my review that I thought no such thing. Teaching is good; movie is bad. The distinction isn’t always made by civilians, for whom the mechanics of filmmaking are subliminal and the story is all that they notice.
I want, finally, to give you one whole review, entire. I was often blamed for alleged artiness, that I valued art films over entertainment. And while I certainly asked of films that they have some lasting value to the viewer — something beyond the momentary tickle of amusement — I was no fan of mere artiness.
In fact, the film that gave me the most severe moral nausea was perhaps the artiest film I ever saw, save only “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was Peter Greenaway’s “8½ Women,” which struck me as so vile and misogynistic that it gave me the equivalent of metaphysical borborygmus.
There is no one who admires art films more than I. If you have read my film criticism over the years, you already know that if it is slow, wordy and has thoughtful gazes instead of car crashes, I usually give it stars out the wazoo.
But I have met my match.
Peter Greenaway’s new film, “8½ Women,” is so pretentiously arty, so aridly sterile, so ponderously coy that I could barely make it through to the end.
If you’ve seen other Greenaway films – “Draughtsman’s Contract,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Prospero’s Books” or “The Pillow Book” – you have some idea what to expect. If you enjoyed those films, you may enjoy this. I could find neither pleasure nor intellectual stimulus.
The film follows a 55-year-old financier and his grown son as they accumulate a harem on their Geneva estate, and then we watch as the whole thing breaks down.
That synopsis makes it all seem more coherent than the movie does, which is elliptical to the point of cloying.
It is all told in a series of brief, enigmatic vignettes strung together like baroque pearls on a string.
The 8½ women are not really women, and they are not really stereotypes either: What they are are embodiments of various fetishisms.
Critics have lamented Greenaway’s misogyny – I won’t belabor that point – but it isn’t simple misogyny. In fact, the women in this film don’t matter at all, one way or another. What matters are the accouterments of their individual brands of fetishism.
In other words, while pornography objectifies women, fetishism objectifies the paraphernalia and ignores the women altogether.
So, we have a harem including: a prostitute dressed as a nun; a woman in a business suit who makes usurious loans; a nude woman in leather body brace who loves horses and a 600-pound, enormously pink pig; a Japanese woman who wants to be a female impersonator so she can be more ”feminine”; and an amputee – the ”½” woman.
I have no doubt that Greenaway is serious about all this. But in human hands, such a cast could create only ludicrous comedy. Unfortunately, Greenaway doesn’t have a funny bone in his body: It is all quite grave.
Both father and son in the film are notorious narcissists, and it seems as if Greenaway is, too, but instead of navel gazing, they are staring a bit lower.
Most of the nudity is of 55-year-old John Standing, admiring his penis in a mirror.
I’ve never seen a film with this much nudity that is so unerotic.
Giving stars to a film like this is a problem. We are supposed to take into account the intent of the film. We don’t give bad reviews to action films because they are brainless: We take into account what the film intends and whether it succeeds at it.
Well, Greenaway intends to make a pretentiously arty film. So, should he get five stars for succeeding at making a reptilian, repulsive, boring, emetic and anaphrodisiacal yawner?
In his press material, Greenaway says that ”it is absolutely imperative to read poetry many times” and that we need to view his films multiple times to extract the meaning from them.
I think you’ll be a champ if you manage to make it through even once.