Roger Ebert is one of, if not the most, influential movie critics of all time.
He reviewed films for the Chicago Sun Times from 1967 until his death in 2013 and was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He is best known as the longtime co-host (with Gene Siskel) of movie review TV programs, first with Sneak Previews on PBS and then their syndicated show At The Movies.
I have a book at home that has 600 complete movie reviews by Ebert called “Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, 1987 Edition.” There is one particular review in this collection that I enjoy above all others. It is for the movie “I Spit On Your Grave” in which Ebert gives the movie zero stars, and proceeds to lambast not just the filmmakers but the other audience members who were in the theater when he watched it.
His writing is absolutely merciless and hilarious as he skewers those involved for what he called “a vile bag of garbage” and “sick, reprehensible and contemptible.”
That was just in the first two sentences of his review, and Ebert was just getting warmed up.
The reason I bring it up is if you love movies like I do, you would think the most attractive job would be that of a movie critic. You spend all your time watching and writing about movies. What could be better? However, there is a flip side to that which I don’t think people consider — for every “Casablanca” and “Raging Bull” you watch, you also have to watch movies like “I Spit On Your Grave.”
In fact, there are more bad movies released in a given year than really good ones. It must be really depressing to be obligated to watch a movie that every fiber of your being is telling you is not going to be any good. Like most casual film fans, I avoid movies that don’t appeal to me. Thus, I am not likely to see movies I intensely dislike. Yet, there have been instances where I walk out of a theater having watched a movie that I absolutely hated. Usually, it’s not movies like “I Spit On Your Grave” because I wouldn’t go and see it to begin with, and if I did, I would have an idea of what I was getting myself into.
The movies I hate are high-profile films that were more than just bad but violated my sense of propriety. I’ve picked five that stick out in my mind for various reasons.
I remember seeing the previews for Pearl Harbor way back in the winter/spring of 2001. There were two things that stood out to me:
- The reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor looked really impressive.
- It was directed by Michael Bay.
My curiosity was piqued because of the attack footage, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was going to be a fiasco because it was directed by Bay. I had seen two of his films previously — “Armageddon” and “The Rock” — and they held the distinction of being the only two films to have literally given me a headache. So it was with some trepidation that I settled into the seat next to my brother when “Pearl Harbor” eventually came to the theater in May of 2001.
To say that “Pearl Harbor” earned every bad vibe I had going in is to put it mildly. This movie is ridiculously bad from beginning to end, so bad that when the attack on Pearl Harbor eventually came I had totally ceased caring.
The film is three hours long, and the first hour and a half is the most boring love triangle story I have ever seen in a film, as both Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett pine after Kate Beckinsale. But, that is not the reason I hate “Pearl Harbor.”
Heaven knows Hollywood has ruined any number of good stories with staid melodrama and cardboard characters. Bad movies happen, and I’m sure no filmmaker goes into a movie expecting or trying to make a bad one (although Bay may be the exception). No, what crossed the line for me with Pearl Harbor was one moment in the film that was so offensive, so ridiculously tone-deaf, so moronically awful that made the film beyond bad, and that all these years later it is still the one movie that comes to mind as the worst I have ever seen.
The scene in question occurs about halfway through the film after the two friends played by Affleck and Hartnett have had fisticuffs over Beckinsale at a Hawaiian bar. After the fight is over, they’re sitting there licking their wounds, and one says to the other, “There’s got to be some way we can work things out so that things can be right between me and you.”
And by God if Bay doesn’t cut away in the very next scene to shots of the Japanese bombers beginning their attack. I remember distinctly in that moment thinking, “Well thank God the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to bring the boys back together. The people killed on that infamous day should be grateful to have sacrificed themselves for such a noble cause.”
I was dumbstruck by how carelessly stupid and ham-handed that entire segue was handled, such that the entire succeeding attack sequence, no matter how bravura, was overshadowed. Pearl Harbor was a landmark event in American history, and it deserved a much better effort, not some thoughtless B-movie love story and excuse for expensive special effects by a hack director.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Like pretty much everyone else, I loved “Home Alone.” I thought it was inventive and very funny. So when the inevitable sequel came out, I went and paid my money to see it. I needn’t have bothered. I could have simply rented the first film and watched it again.
The second film does not have a single original thought in its entirety. The kid is left alone again, this time in New York City. Okay, in the first film you were willing to suspend disbelief in furtherance of your enjoyment of the film, but now this is beyond bordering on child neglect.
Even if you generously suspend disbelief a second time (after all, you kind of had to expect it going in), it doesn’t forgive the filmmakers total lack of creativity in making this film. The same basic story structure is followed — kid is lost, he is targeted by hapless robbers, he defends his turf in slapstick style, and is reunited with his family for a sentimental holiday embrace.
The old man in the first film is replaced by an old bag lady, and they even resurrect the pizza delivery guy joke. The hapless robbers are once again played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, and of course they are subjected to numerous booby traps.
When the movie finally ended, I was furious. I paid good money to see a movie, and they gave me a complete retread of the first film. I felt like I had literally been robbed.
I love good horror films. Now good is a loaded word, because what is good to me might be totally different to somebody else. I love horror movies that develop interesting characters, put them in peril, and through innovative use of production design, camerawork and music create a mood of fear, dread and suspense, such that you the viewer are swept up into the circumstances these characters find themselves in.
Gore and blood are superfluous to a good horror film; they can be included if your intent is to shock, but fright comes from a deeper place, from personal insecurities and experiences that good horror films manipulate.
(SPOILER ALERT) I went to see “The Strangers” full of hope, as I always am when I go and see a horror film. I don’t normally go to horror films that I expect to be gorefests because they don’t interest me. I want to cheer on the protagonists and be thrilled, but I don’t want to be assaulted. You can imagine my dismay upon viewing “The Strangers” when it is basically announced in the very first moments of the film that the young couple is dead. They don’t come right out and say it, but it is strongly implied. I was stunned. The filmmakers have made a choice to inform the viewers that one of the prime reasons to watch a horror film is moot.
I ask you — if you know that the protagonists of a horror film are going to die, what is the reason for watching the movie? To watch them die? And if so, what does that say about the cynicism of the filmmakers, and what does it say about the audience? I could not believe that this was true. It had to be a red herring, to be disproved by some twist that comes later in the film. So I continued watching as the young couple in the film is terrorized by the strangers. I continued watching to the point that the young couple has been cornered by the strangers, and tied up in their kitchen. And it finally occurred to me that there was not going to be some twist and there was no red herring.
This film has one intention — to show the terrorization of a young couple, and finally the torture and killing of the couple. Period. I was disgusted, and I walked out. To this day I have never seen the ending of “The Strangers,” and I never will. This movie is sick.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
Sometimes you watch movies you have no business watching. I’m no exception. I saw the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it was pretty much what I expected. A Halloween knock-off, and like many of the Halloween knock-offs it was gory and predictable, but not totally without some merit.
I should have left it at that.
The original Nightmare featured a villain by the name of Freddy Krueger, a child molester who was burned to death by the parents of the children he molested and returns to terrorize the dreams of the next generation of teenagers. Basically, Freddy can’t hurt them as long as they stay awake, but once they fall asleep they are fair game. This is pretty rote stuff for a slasher film.
I don’t know what possessed me to rent the sequel to Nightmare, but I did and I wish I never had. I’m not even going to bother discussing what the film was about. Who cares? I’m not even sure at what point the scene occurred that made me shut the film off, but my memory is that it was fairly early in the film.
Let’s just say that the scene in question features Freddy the child molester opening up his coat to display the heads of his child victims coming out of his chest. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole attitude of the film (and franchise, from what I can perceive having never seen another of the films), is that Freddy has become an anti-hero, is given all of the funny lines and has become some kind of sardonic horror wit commenting on the goings-on.
Is that what we’ve come to? That child molesters are funny?
Movies reflect society, and so do the movies that society, or a subset of society, chooses to embrace. The idea that movies like this one (and “The Strangers”) have devotees is disturbing on many levels.
I have hated “The Piano” for 28 years. I knew when I contemplated this article that I would include “The Piano.”
As I began to write about my objections to the film, which were many, I felt I needed to watch certain parts again to confirm what I was writing. I discovered that my memory of certain events was quite different than what was actually portrayed on screen. At that point, I knew it was imperative to watch the movie again and determine if my initial issues with the movie would still hold up.
So, for the first time since 1993, I forced myself to watch “The Piano” again. Do I still hate the movie? I can’t say that I do, but some of my problems with the film still exist, enough that I can truthfully say I really dislike it.
“The Piano” stars Holly Hunter as a 19th century mute Scottish woman who is sent to New Zealand in an arranged marriage, along with her illegitimate daughter and her one prized possession, her piano.
The film received rapturous reviews and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay. This is definitely not some throwaway piece of trash like “The Strangers.” This is a film with something to say and with very talented people involved in the telling.
I have three reasons why I so dislike this movie.
First, Ava, the Holly Hunter character, is not mute. She simply does not talk. My memory of the movie had it that Ava chose not to speak, but in fact the film never actually says how it came to be that she was mute. I read that Jane Campion, the writer and director of the film, has stated that in her notes the Ava character chose not to speak, but the film never specifically says this.
This was one of my strongest initial reactions to the film, and one that immediately made me unsympathetic to the Ava character, and while I’m not as unyielding on this point as I originally was, I am still prone to look at her askance. I understand that women have been historically mistreated by a patrician society, and am more than willing to admit to possibly being quite dense when it comes to some subtle symbolism. But frankly, I prefer my figures of protest and rebellion to be vocal and in your face. Give me an insistent, take-no-prisoners feminist like Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug any day to some mope who simply refuses to defend herself.
Another plot point that really bothers me is the depiction of her husband Alisdair, played by Sam Neill. This guy is all over the map, and his inconsistent behavior, that climaxes in a horrific act of brutality, left me totally scratching my head. He is in one moment sweetly diffident and then aristocratically haughty. He is desperate for Ava’s affection, but the one thing that would make her feel most welcome in his home — bring the piano from the beach up to his house — he refuses to do.
In fact, he doubles down on insulting her by selling the piano without her approval. He wants to have a sexual relationship with her, but she refuses to let him touch her, but she will touch him, but he apparently has some issue with that and won’t allow her to do it?
These people drove me crazy. And then, in the coup de grace, he performs an act of such brutality in revenge for her infidelity, an act I felt was totally uncharacteristic, and then follows it up by doing a complete one eighty and allowing her to leave with her lover?
But the plot point that really had me going was the relationship between Ava and Baines, played by Harvey Keitel. Baines is a neighbor who is attracted to Ava, and manipulates her husband to sell him the piano and to throw in piano lessons from his wife. Ava despises Baines, but the opportunity to play her piano is too enticing to say no. Baines makes a deal with Ava that she can earn her piano back, one key at a time, by allowing him certain privileges, such as undressing her, looking under her skirt and touching her.
At one point, Baines even tells her that he has turned her into a whore. The kicker is that Baines is the romantic hero of the film! Call me crazy, but I don’t see much difference in Baines’ behavior in this film to that of Harvey Weinstein, who used the attraction of fame and careers to force young women to perform sexual acts. Weinstein is a reviled felon, but Baines is a romantic hero?
If the film’s argument is that a patriarchal society persecutes women, isn’t that undermined by having the one man who set in motion by his despicable acts the chain of events that led to her mutilation ultimately become the hero?
I know that some of these films may be liked or even loved by some readers of this article (although if you like “The Strangers” or “Freddy’s Revenge” I hope you will reconsider). That’s okay — that’s what makes any art form so exciting is that different aspects appeal to different people.
I even encourage you to revisit some of the movies you remember hating, as I did with “The Piano” although my overall opinion did not substantially change, I can now see some of the merits (certainly in the performances and overall filmmaking prowess) that attracted people to it in the first place, even if I have grave issues with some of the underlying concepts.
Movies stay the same, but people, and their perspectives, can change over time. It is interesting to revisit movies and view them through an aged lens, one colored by life experiences that would have been alien to our younger selves.