There are good movies, so-so movies and bad movies. Is there anything worse, though, than a bad movie?
Yes, Virginia, there is. And I have seen my share.
For decades, Newsday has used a four-star rating system for its film reviews. When I became the paper’s movie critic in 2008, I had to figure out how to approach this system. Obviously, it’s rare to see a four-star movie — even if it’s not “Citizen Kane,” it has to be something truly outstanding. Three stars signals a wholehearted recommendation, though not exactly a masterpiece. Many movies fall into the two-and-a-half star range: they’re just meh. Tougher to call is the one-star or half-star movie — how do you decide between a D grade and a D-minus?
Then there’s the nuclear option: zero stars.
What makes a movie so awful that it deserves zero stars? Like the four-star movie, this is a rare breed. This is a movie whose redeeming qualities are either infinitesimal or nonexistent. It’s a movie that fails so spectacularly it doesn’t get credit for decent lighting or being in focus. A zero-star movie doesn’t even get credit for existing.
Every zero-star movie is unique in its own way, but over the years I’ve noticed that the worst of the worst tend to fall into a few different categories. Here are four examples:
It’s easy to poke fun at A-list stars and their outsize egos, but they often bring it upon themselves. Remember when John Travolta thought that “Battlefield Earth” would turn us all into Scientologists? Or when Mariah Carey played a version of herself in “Glitter”? Remember almost every movie Madonna ever made?
For sheer self-centeredness, though, nothing beats last year’s “By the Sea,” written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt and starring herself and her husband, Brad. (They produced it as well.) They play an American writer and his wife who stay in a beachside French hotel during the 1970s. He’s depressed, she’s depressed, they never have sex. With little dialogue and even less action, the movie mostly features the two stars standing around in chic outfits, smoking cigarettes and gazing with despair upon million-dollar views of the coast.
Kinder critics praised the cinematography and scenery, but I couldn’t find a reason to give this extended Chanel No. 5 commercial even a half-star. I figured the two actors got enough gratification just admiring themselves on screen for two hours.
INSULTS TO INTELLIGENCE
Filmmakers often assume their audiences will swallow just about anything. In the sci-fi failure “Transcendence,” Johnny Depp uploaded his consciousness into the cloud — a literal one, in the sky. (I gave that movie a half-star for sheer nuttiness.) In the zero-star fantasy “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowskis told the story of a housemaid (Mila Kunis) who sells her eggs to buy a telescope but discovers she’s a princess. These movies took years to make, yet we spotted their idiocy within minutes.
Then there’s “Aloha,” Cameron Crowe’s zero-star comedy-drama from last year. Among its many terrible ideas were casting Emma Stone as a native Hawaiian (as if nobody would notice?), hoping we’d swoon when Bradley Cooper says cheesy things like “Would you stop getting more beautiful?” and creating a baffling climax in which an orbiting space object is destroyed by rock music.
Filmmakers tend to be smart people, but moviegoers are no dopes, either. “Aloha” made just $26.3 million on its $37 million budget, one of the year’s major flops.
LAPSES IN TASTE
Taste is subjective, of course, but some movies cross a line just to cross it. Adam Sandler’s zero-star comedy “That’s My Boy” (2012), whose plot hinged on statutory rape and incest, marked a new low — until Peter Farrelly reset the bar with “Movie 43.”
An anthology comedy spearheaded by Farrelly with several directors and writers, “Movie 43” (2013) rounds up more than a dozen A-list stars in an orgy of nastiness and vulgarity. Among the more hideous highlights are Chris Pratt and his real-life wife, Anna Faris, as lovers with a scatological fetish; Richard Gere as the CEO of a product that hacks off its customers’ penises; and Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenager getting her period.
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” the trailers promised. As for the cast, they probably wish they could un-be in it.
Finally, some movies are so badly made that they barely qualify as movies. “Left Behind,” for instance, a faith-based rapture-fantasy starring Nicolas Cage, was so sloppy and disorganized that it literally couldn’t keep track of night and day.
At least that film was made by relative amateurs. “The Last Airbender,” (2010) a fantasy-adventure based on the Nickelodeon series, was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the maestro who gave us “The Sixth Sense.” Here, Shyamalan completely loses his ability to coherently tell the story of Aang (Noah Ringer), a boy with mystical powers trying to unite four tribes. The dialogue is so crammed with fictional exposition that the actors sound like they’re reading a Pokemon manual, while the choppy editing seemed almost random.
Not even the special effects deserved a half-star: The postproduction 3-D made the whole movie look as flat as a View-Master slide. With its $150 million budget, “The Last Airbender” was an inexcusable, zero-star disaster.
As a last note, a truly terrible movie is just as exceptional as a truly great one, and in some ways just as fascinating. It’s my job, though, to sit through them so you don’t have to.
The worst of the worst
Of the more than 1,000 movies I’ve seen as Newsday’s film critic, I’ve given zero-star reviews to fewer than 25. Here are the absolute worst of the worst:
10. ALL ABOUT STEVE (2009) There’s a reason you’ve never heard of this romantic comedy starring A-listers Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper: Because she plays an irritating crossword fanatic and he plays an uninteresting person. In terms of on-screen chemistry, they’re the equivalent of bleach and ammonia.
9. MOMS’ NIGHT OUT (2014) This botched comedy (starring Trace Adkins and Patricia Heaton) stands out for many things, but one is a technical reason: The filmmakers somehow managed to capture the weirdest, ugliest facial expression on nearly every actor in nearly every scene. It’s like a 90-minute flip-book of ruined family photos.
8. JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS (2015) Aubrey Peeples plays an aspiring singer who is shocked — shocked! — to discover that global stardom requires personal and artistic sacrifice. File this movie’s profound message under Things a 9-Year-Old Could Have Told You.
7. REMEMBER ME (2010) In this saccharine yet creepy romance, Robert Pattinson plays a young, moody guy — no stretch there — who sleeps with a woman to get revenge on her father. Aww, how cute! The plot also hinges on the World Trade Center attacks. Double cute!
6. JUPITER ASCENDING (2015). This sci-fi fantasy from the Wachowskis (“The Matrix”) defies description, but here’s an attempt: A humble house-cleaner (Mila Kunis) discovers she’s a galactic princess thanks to a part-wolf warrior (Channing Tatum). It’s a statistical marvel whose 127 minutes include not a single good idea.
5. ROCK THE KASBAH (2015) A washed-up rock manager (Bill Murray) decides to make a pop star out of an Afghan singer (Leem Lubany). Magically, she reverses centuries of religious and cultural stigmas by performing the songs of Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. Possibly the most misguided comedy ever made.
4. ALOHA (2015) Cameron Crowe’s cloying romance stars Bradley Cooper as an ex-military man trying to bed a happily married woman (gross!) while flirting with a native Hawaiian (played by Emma Stone?) and trying to stop an outer-space missile (say what?). The movie is so wide of the mark that you can’t even tell where it was aiming.
3. MOVIE 43 (2013) Richard Gere, Halle Berry, Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and many other talented people run through the most repulsive, unimaginative and unfunny skits ever filmed. The whole thing almost literally stinks. “Movie 43” currently holds a difficult-to-attain 4 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
2. THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasy-adventure is so disjointed and disorganized that you might think the reels got mixed up — possibly with a whole other movie. You could watch it 10 times and still not understand a thing, though by then you’d have gone permanently insane.
1. BY THE SEA (2015) Think back to the most pretentious European art-film you’ve ever had to endure. Now imagine Angelina Jolie making that movie, and you’ve got “By The Sea,” starring herself and Brad Pitt as depressed Americans who visit France and smoke a lot. Remember how Jean-Paul Sartre said hell is other people? That’s because he hadn’t seen this movie.
— Rafer Guzmán