Donald Liebenson chats with actor/comedian/writer Patton Oswalt about his new book "Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film."
Gilbert Gottfried on Robin Williams; Remembering Lauren Bacall; Paying attention; Tyler Ross shines in "The Killing"; Reflections on "Lawrence of Arabia."
Tom Shales looks at "Carson on TCM," a weekly series of shows culling great Carson interviews.
Gathered here in one convenient place are my recent reviews that awarded films Two Stars or less. These are, generally speaking to be avoided. Sometimes I hear from readers who confess they are in the mood to watch a really bad movie. If you're sincere, be sure to know what you're getting: A really bad movie. Movies that are "so bad they're good" should generally get two and a half stars. Two stars can be borderline. And Pauline Kael once wrote, "The movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we shouldn't go at all."
"Just Go With It" (PG-13, 116 minutes). This film's story began as a French farce, became the Broadway hit "Cactus Flower," was made into a 1969 film and now arrives gasping for breath in a witless retread with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston and Brooklyn Decker. The characters are so stupid it doesn't seem nice to laugh at them. One star.
"Sanctum" (R, 109 minutes). A terrifying adventure shown in an incompetent way. Scuba-diving cave explorers enter a vast system in New Guinea and are stranded. But this rich story opportunity is lost because of incoherent editing, poor 3D technique, and the effect of 3D dimming in the already dark an murky caves. A "James Cameron Production," yes, but certainly not a "James Cameron Film." One and a half stars
"I Am Number Four" (PG-13, 110 minutes). Nine aliens from the planet Mogador travel across the galaxy to take refuge on earth and rip off elements of the Twilight and Harry Potter movies, and combine them with senseless scenes of lethal Quidditch-like combat. Alex Pettyfer stars as Number Four, who feels hormonal about the pretty Sarah (Dianna Agron), although whether he is the brooding teenage Edward Cullen he seems to be or a weird alien life form I am not sure. Inane setup followed by endless and perplexing action. One and a half stars
"Certifiably Jonathan" (Unrated, 80 minutes). Jonathan Winters deserves better than this. Jim Pasternak's mockumentary is not merely a bad film, but a waste of an opportunity. Nearing 80, Winters is still active and funny, and deserves a real doc, not this messy failed attempt at satirizing--what? Documentaries themselves? Lame scenes involving an art show, a theft and the "Museum of Modern Art" fit awkwardly with cameos of too many other comics, who except for the funny Robin Williams seem to be attending a testimonial. One star.
"The Green Hornet" (PG-13, 108 minutes) An almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about. Although it follows the rough storyline of previous versions of the title, it neglects the construction of a plot engine to pull us through. There are pointless dialogue scenes going nowhere much too slowly, and then pointless action scenes going everywhere much too quickly. One star.
"The Nutcracker in 3D" (PG, 107 minutes) A train wreck of a movie, beginning with the idiotic idea of combining the Tchaikovsky classic with a fantasy conflict that seems inspired by the Holocaust. After little Mary (Elle Fanning) discovers her toy nutcracker can talk, he reveals himself as a captive prince and spirits her off to a land where fascist storm troopers are snatching toys from the hands of children and burning them to blot out the sun. I'm not making this up. Appalling. And forget about the 3D, which is the dingiest and dimmest I've seen. One star
"I Spit on Your Grave" (Unrated; for adults only. Running time: 108 minutes) Despicable remake of the despicable 1978 film "I Spit On Your Grave." This one is more offensive, because it lingers lovingly and at greater length on realistic verbal, psychological and physical violence against the woman, and then reduces her "revenge" to cartoonish horror-flick impossibilities. Oh, and a mentally disabled boy is forced against his will to perform a rape. Zero stars.
"Life As We Know It" (PG-13, 113 minutes). When their best friends are killed in a crash, Holly and Messer (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel) are appointed as joint custodians of their one-year-old, Sophie. Also, they have to move into Sophie's mansion. But Holly and Messer can't stand one another. So what happens when they start trying to raise Sophie. You'll never guess in a million years. Or maybe you will. One and a half stars
"Hatchet II" (Unrated, 85 minutes). A gory homage to slasher films, which means it has its tongue in its cheek until the tongue is ripped out and the victims of a swamp man are sliced, diced, slashed, disemboweled, chainsawed and otherwise inconvenienced. One and a half stars
"The Last Airbender" (PG, 103 minutes). An agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. Originally in 2D, retrofitted in fake 3D that makes this picture the dimmest I've seen in years. Bad casting, wooden dialogue, lousy special effects, incomprehensible plot, and boring, boring, boring. One-half of one star.
"The A-Team" (PG-13, 121 minutes). an incomprehensible mess with the 1980s TV show embedded within. at over two hours of Queasy-Cam anarchy it's punishment. Same team, same types, same traits, new actors: Liam Neeson, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, "Rampage" Jackson, Patrick Wilson. One and a half stars
"Sex & the City 2" (R, 146 minutes). Comedy about flyweight bubbleheads living in a world where their defining quality is consuming things. They gobble food, fashion, houses, husbands, children, and vitamins. Plot centers on marital discord between Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mr. Big (Chris Noth), a purring, narcissistic, velvety idiot? Later, the girls are menaced for immodest dress during a luxurious freebie in Abu Dhabi. Appalling. Sure to be enjoyed by SATC fans. One star
"The Good Heart" (R, 98 minutes). Oh. My. God. A story sopping wet with cornball sentimentalism, wrapped up in absurd melodrama, and telling a Rags to Riches story with an ending that is truly shameless. That fine actor Brian Cox and that good actor Paul Dano and that angelic actress Isild Le Besco cast themselves on the sinking vessel of this story and go down with the ship. One and a half stars.
"Kick-Ass" (R, 117 minutes). An 11-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), her father (Nicolas Cage) and a high school kid (Aaron Johnson) try to become superheroes to fight an evil ganglord. There's deadly carnage dished out by the child, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. A comic book satire, they say. Sad, I say. One star
"Nightmare on Elm Street" (R, 95 minutes). Teenagers are introduced, enjoy brief moments of happiness, are haunted by nightmares, and then slashed to death by Freddy. So what? One star
"The Bounty Hunter" (PG-13, 110 minutes). An inconsequential formula comedy and a waste of the talents of Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. He's a bounty hunter, she's skipped bail on a traffic charge, they were once married, and that's the end of the movie's original ideas. We've seen earlier versions of every single scene to the point of catatonia. Rating: One and a half stars.
"Cop Out" (R, 110 minutes). An outstandingly bad cop movie, starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as partners who get suspended (of course) and then try to redeem themselves by overthrowing a drug operation while searching for the valuable baseball card Willis wants to sell to pay for his daughter's wedding. Morgan plays an unreasonable amount of time dressed as a cell phone, considering there is nothing to prevent him from taking it off. Kevin Smith, who directed, has had many, many better days. One and a half stars.
"The Lovely Bones" (PG-13). A deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they realize what a wonderful person you were. Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings") believes special effects can replace genuine emotion, and tricks up Alive Sebold's well-regarded novel with gimcrack New Age fantasies. With, however, affective performances by Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Saoirse Ronan as the victim. One star.
"The Spy Next Door" (PG, 92 minutes). Jackie Chan is a Chinese-CIA double agent babysitting girl friend's three kids as Russian mobsters attack. Uh, huh. Precisely what you'd expect from a PG-rated Jackie Chan comedy. If that's what you're looking for, you won't be disappointed. It's not what I was looking for. One and a half stars.
"Old Dogs" (PG, 88 minutes). Stupefying dimwitted. John Travolta's and Robin Williams' agents weren't perceptive enough to smell the screenplay in its advanced state of decomposition. Seems to have lingered in post-production while editors struggled desperately to inject laugh cues.Careens uneasily between fantasy and idiocy, the impenetrable and the crashingly ham-handed. Example: Rita Wilson gets her hand slammed by a car trunk, and the sound track breaks into "Big Girls Don't Cry." When hey get their hands slammed in car trunks, they do. One star. View the trailer.
"Did You Hear About the Morgans?" (PG-13, 103 minutes). Feuding couple from Manhattan (Hugh Grant and Jessica Sarah Parker) are forced to flee town under Witness Protection Program, find themselves Fish Out of Water in Strange New World, meet Colorful Characters, survive Slapstick Adventures, end up Together at the End. The only part of that formula that still works is The End. With supporting roles for Sam Elliott and Wilford Brimley, sporting the two most famous mustaches in the movies. One and a half stars.
"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (PG-13, 130 minutes). The characters in this movie should be arrested for loitering with intent to moan. The sequel to "Twilight" (2008) is preoccupied with remember that film and setting up the third one. Sitting through this experience is like driving a tractor in low gear though a sullen sea of Brylcreem. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson return in their original roles, she dewy and masochistic, he sullen and menacing. Ah, teenage romance! One star
"The Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day" . (R, 21 minutes) Idiotic ode to macho horseshite (to employ an ancient Irish word). Distinguished by superb cinematography. The first film in 10 years from Troy Duffy, whose "Boondock Saints" (1999) has become a cult fetish. Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus are Irish brothers who return to Boston for revenge and murder countless enemies in an incomprehensible story involving heavy metal cranked up to 12 and lots of boozing, smoking, swearing and looking fierce and sweaty. One star. View the trailer.
"Gentlemen Broncos". (PG-13, 107 minutes) Michael Angarano plays Benjamin Purvis, a wannabe sci-fi Doctor Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Alas. the great man rips off the kid's book, just when get kid has sold the miniscule filming rights. All sorts of promising material from Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"), but it's a clutter of jumbled continuity that doesn't add up, despite the presence of Jennifer Coolidge. Two stars. View the trailer.
"The Fourth Kind". (PG-13, 98 minutes). Nome, Alaska (pop. 3,750) has so many disappearances and/or alien abductions that the FBI has investigated there 20 times more than in Anchorage. So it's claimed by this pseudo-doc that goes to inane lengths to appear factual. Milla Jovovich is good as a psychologist whose clients complain that owls stare at them in the middle of the night. One and a half stars. View the trailer.
21 and a Wakeup . (R, 123 minutes). A disjointed, overlong and unconvincing string of anecdotes centering around the personnel of an Army combat hospital in Vietnam. Amy Acker plays an idealistic nurse who is constantly reprimanded by absurdly hostile officer (Faye Dunaway). Plays like a series of unlikely anecdotes trundled onstage without much relationship to one another. One episode involves an unauthorized trip into Cambodia by a nurse and a civilian journalist; it underwhelms. One and a half stars. Visit the website.
"Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant". (PG-13, 108 minutes) This movie includes good Vampires, evil Vampanese, a Wolf-Man, a Bearded Lady, a Monkey Girl with a long tail, a Snake Boy, a dwarf with a four-foot forehead and a spider the size of your shoe, and they're all boring as hell. They're in a traveling side show that comes to town and lures two insipid high school kids (Josh Hutcherson and Chris Massoglia) into a war between enemy vampire factions. Unbearable. With Joh C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Patrick Fugit, and other wasted talents. One star. View the trailer.
"Couples Retreat" (PG-13, 107 minutes). Four troubled couples make a week's retreat to an island paradise where they hope to be healed, which indeed happens, according to ages-old sitcom formulas. This material was old when it was new. The jolly ending is agonizing in its step-by-step obligatory plotting. I didn't care for any of the characters, and that's about how much they seemed to care for one another. Starring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis and Kali Hawk. Two stars. View the trailer.
"Fame.". (PG, 90 minutes). A pale retread of the 1980 classic, lacking the power and emotion of the original. A group of hopeful kids enroll in the New York City School of the Performing Arts and struggle through four years to find themselves. Their back stories are shallow, many seem too old and confident, the plot doesn't engage them, and although individual performers like Naturi Naughton sparkle as a classical pianist who wants to sing hip hop, the film is too superficial to make them convincing. Two stars. View the trailer.
"All About Steve". (PG-13, 87 minutes ) Sandra Bullock plays Mary Horowitz, a crossword puzzle constructor who on a blind date falls insanely in love with Steve, a TV news cameraman (Bradley Cooper, from "The Hangover"). The operative word is "insanely." The movie is billed as a comedy but more resembles a perplexing public display of irrational behavior. Seeing her run around as a basket case makes you appreciate Lucille Ball, who could play a dizzy dame and make you like her. One and a half stars. View the trailer.
View image Looming large.
I believe it was Gordon Gecko who proclaimed: "Ham is good!"
The "Wall Street" supervillain (superhero?) was not advocating violation of any dietary laws, of course, but simply stating a fact: Sometimes Big Acting can be quite enjoyable. Other times, of course, it can be cringe-worthy, irritating, risible, embarrassing. Only you can decide which is which. For you.
Take for example the story of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest" -- she of "No wire hangers!" and "Eat your meat!" (both precursors of "I drink your milkshake!"). Pre-release publicity reports claimed that Dunaway was giving a serious dramatic performance. But from the very first screenings it was painfully (yet fasciatingly) clear that somebody was going off her rocker -- but which actress was it: Crawford or Dunaway?
Performances pitched at the balcony, or the moon, always take the risk of falling somewhere between "tour-de-force" and "trying way too hard," virtuosity and showboating. And opinions may very about where they come down. (See "A Journey to the End of Taste," below.) You may wince at the Method nakedness displayed by Marlon Brando or James Dean in some of their most intense emotional moments ("You're tearing me apart!"). Or you may rejoice at even the most outré dramatic and/or comedic efforts of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson, Klaus Kinski, Will Ferrell, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Nicolas Cage, Ben Stiller, Tyler Perry, Owen Wilson, Gene Wilder... while others find them excruciating, overwrought or unintentionally campy.
The bigger the performance, the bigger the risks. Or maybe not. Just look over the history of Oscar nominations for acting.
LOS ANGELES -- It's a touchy situation. You describe a guy's movie as one of the worst of the year, and then it grosses $200 million and makes him into Hollywood's flavor of the month. You say it wasn't funny, and the audiences can't stop laughing. Now you're supposed to walk into a room and interview the guy. Hey, let's hope he has a sense of humor.
Hollywood - The day before he won his Academy Award, Rod Steiger sat on the bank of a lake hidden up in the hills and said. "Of course I want to win. I don't know anybody who wants to lose."