Film criticism is a genre of journalism that has evolved over time, much like the medium it covers. Much film criticism was once mere industry backslapping, while the rest remained academic or ponderously literate.
Eventually, probably due to competition, reviewers sought to inject entertainment value into their copy. An early example of the clever criticism came in 1948 when the New York Times writer Bosley Crowther, usually painfully serious, dismissed the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as “a picture you don’t have to see to disbelieve.”
Over time, reviewers were more and more likely to be strong writers with serious cinematic expertise. The likes of Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael could influence the success or failure of a movie release.
Roger Ebert was perhaps the best-known and best-liked film critic of his time. He wrote for the Chicago Sun Times from 1967 until his death in the spring of 2013 and was the first film critic to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
But much of his influence and celebrity was a product of the television show Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. Their signature sign of a good review, “Two thumbs up”, remains part of the North American vernacular.
The otherwise genial Ebert became the master of the arch, withering laugh-out-loud one-line death sentence. Ebert’s cutting critiques remained sharp even after his diagnosis and painful surgery for thyroid and glandular cancer, and the late great critic lives on as one of the most formative journalists in movie history. There is much to choose from in his prolific half century of work, but below are the movies he deemed worthy of his most mortified, disapproving put-downs.
19.Caligula, 1979: “Sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash”
Written by Gore Vidal, starring the likes of Sir John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren, ‘Caligula’ was intended to be an epic portrayal of the legendary debauchery of one of Rome’s most notorious emperors.
But to Ebert: “Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash… People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty. Disgusted and unspeakably depressed, I walked out of the film after two hours of its 170-minute length.”
18.The Blue Lagoon, 1980: “So many palms carefully arranged in front of genital areas”
It was billed as “A sensuous story of natural love.” Chronicling the sexual awakening of two shipwrecked teenagers, it featured a lot of Brooke Shields’ 15 year old body. It was considered very risqué but was a box-office hit.
Ebert ridiculed its pretension.”This movie could have been made as a soft-core sex film, but it’s too restrained: There are so many palms carefully arranged in front of genital areas, and Brooke Shields’ long hair is so carefully draped to conceal her breasts, that there must have been a whole squad of costumers and set decorators on permanent Erogenous Zone Alert.”
17. Hellbound: Hellraiser II, 1988: “For audiences with little taste and atrophied attention spans”
You have to wonder why Ebert would even bother to review some of these movies. Hellbound was a forgettable horror show that bombed at the box office.
Ebert described it as “…an ideal movie for audiences with little taste and atrophied attention spans who want to glance at the screen occasionally and ascertain that something is still happening up there. If you fit that description, you have probably not read this far, but what the heck, we believe in full-service reviews around here. You’re welcome.”
16.Mr.Magoo, 1997 : “A one-joke movie without the joke”
Ebert once called comedy legend Leslie Nielsen (immortalized as Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun) the Olivier of spoof. But he was merciless in his trashing of this Nielsen vehicle.
“Mr. Magoo is transcendently bad. It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle outreaches the fly. There is not a laugh in it. Not one. I counted. I wonder if there could have been any laughs in it. This is a one-joke movie without the joke.”
15. Armageddon, 1998: “An assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain…”
How could the same people smart enough to sign up Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton be so dumb as to make this clunker? Oh wait. They hired the director of The Transformers. What are you sayin’ Roger? “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”
14. Last Rites, 1988: “The work of people deficient in taste, judgment, reason, tact, morality…”
“Many films are bad. Only a few declare themselves the work of people deficient in taste, judgment, reason, tact, morality and common sense. Was there no one connected with this project who read the screenplay, considered the story, evaluated the proposed film and vomited?”
13. She’s Out of Control, 1989: “The first movie fabricated entirely from sitcom clichés and plastic lifestyles”
A plain-Jane teen blossoms into babe-hood to the great alarm of her father, played by Tony Danza. You get what you pay for.
“What planet did the makers of this film come from? What assumptions do they have about the purpose and quality of life? I ask because She’s Out of Control is simultaneously so bizarre and so banal that it’s a first: the first movie fabricated entirely from sitcom clichés and plastic lifestyles, without reference to any known plane of reality.
12. North, 1994: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie.”
North is an eleven year old who sues his parents for doing a bad job of raising their child. Ebert gave it two thumbs south.
“North is one of the most unpleasant, contrived, artificial, cloying experiences I’ve had at the movies.” One of the worst movies ever made. I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
11.Baby Geniuses, 1999: “A film as unpleasant as Baby Geniuses’ achieves a kind of grandeur”
Number 92 on IMDB’s 100 Worst list, actors the caliber of Kathleen Turner and Kim Cattrall should have known better. Sly, the smartest of babies, escapes from captivity at the hands of evil scientists’ lab to lead the babies of the outside world in a heroic mission to free the babies still being held.
Hilarity was to ensue but it made Ebert queasy. “Bad films are easy to make, but a film as unpleasant as Baby Geniuses’ achieves a kind of grandeur… The nauseating sight of little Sly on a disco floor, dressed in the white suit from “Saturday Night Fever” and dancing to “Stayin’ Alive,” had me pawing under my seat for the bag my Subway Gardenburger came in, in case I felt the sudden need to recycle it.”
10.Battlefield Earth, 2000: “Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time.”
A sure-fire disaster like this John Travolta adaptation of his hero and Church of Scientology founder L.Ron Hubbard’s novel would have presented an irresistible, target-rich environment.
Battlefield Earth is regularly listed as one of the worst movies of all time. And Ebert concurs.
“Their costumes look like they were purchased from the Goodwill store on the planet Tatooine. The Psychlos can fly between galaxies, but look at their nails: Their civilization has mastered the hyperdrive but not the manicure. Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. The visuals are grubby and drab. The characters are unkempt and have rotten teeth. Breathing tubes hang from their noses like ropes of snot. The soundtrack sounds like the boom mike is being slammed against the inside of a 55-gallon drum…I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”
9. Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, 2001: “I’ve seen audits that were more thrilling”
This was the second sequel to a movie that should never have existed in the first place, so it’s unsurprising that Ebert felt the need to tear Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles apart.
8. .Freddy Got Fingered, 2001: “The film is a vomitorium”
“This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as barrels…The film is a vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down.”
7.The Brown Bunny 2003: “I had a colonoscopy once… It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.”
Performance artist and motorcycle racer Vincent Gallo wrote, produced, directed and starred in this movie about a motorcycle racer. Apparently he was much better on a chopper than behind a camera. Despite some graphic sex, Ebert wrote “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.”
6. The Village, 2004: “So witless… that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore”
An irate Ebert wrote: “It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore. And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we’re back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.”
5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009: “A horrible experience of unbearable length”
It’s hard to imagine the battles of Autobots and Decepticons would seem like a promising aesthetic experience. But a film critic’s take on the cinematic rendition of an iconic piece of popular culture might be informative.
Indeed, Ebert’s review has better entertainment value than the movie itself: “A horrible experience of unbearable length…If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination… Those who think Transformers is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved.”
4. The Last Airbender, 2010: “An agonizing experience in every category I can think of”
This story follows Aang, an Avatar, who fights to prevent the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations. Take it away, Roger: “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.”
3. Battle: Los Angeles, 2011: “Noisy, violent, ugly and stupid”
There are movies that defy the imagination when it comes to thinking of how they could have been conceived, approved and financed. How a series of grown men and women could have a series of meetings that would lead to something as cheesy as “Battle: Los Angeles” boggles the mind.
It left Ebert sharpening his axe. “Battle Los Angeles is noisy, violent, ugly and stupid. Its manufacture is a reflection of appalling cynicism on the part of its makers, who don’t even try to make it more than senseless chaos. Here’s a science-fiction film that’s an insult to the words “science” and “fiction,” and the hyphen in between them. You want to cut it up to clean under your fingernails…“Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots. Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you’ve been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart.”
2. The Human Centipede, 2011: “An affront to any notion, however remote, of human decency.”
This movie has become so notorious that it doesn’t really need an introduction or synopsis, but suffice it to say that there’s some surgery required to make the victims of this gore-fest into the eponymous human centipede. This 2011 movie won the Scream Award for Most Memorable Mutilation.
1. Seven Days in Utopia, 2011: “I would rather eat a golf ball than see this movie again.”
Even the award-winning Robert Duvall couldn’t save this story of a young golfer who bombs in his pro tour debut and finds himself on a ranch in Utopia Texas and is made into a movie that also bombs critically and financially. “I would rather eat a golf ball than see this movie again.”