Listen, I know 2018 has been bad – not so much at the movie theatre (which has been quite amazing), but world-wise. Before we let these past awful 12 months fade from memory, though, let us pause to remember the mistakes that Hollywood should hope to avoid next year. (Because it’s fun!)
And this list doesn’t even include Life Itself, Robin Hood, Slender Man, Show Dogs, Midnight Sun, Mortal Engines, Sherlock Gnomes or the many alleged comedies that slithered their way onto Netflix, all of which I miraculously avoided. (All titles listed alphabetically, to avoid superfluous shaming.)
Bad Times at the El Royale
Drew Goddard’s 2012 directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods was such a riotous horror deconstruction that it was a maddening experience to see his name attached to Bad Times at the El Royale. The ensemble-led crime thriller attempts the same trick as Cabin – pulling genre tropes apart until they break and form something new – but fails miserably. A muddy, incredibly overlong pastiche of guns, girls, double-crosses and retro charm that’s gone rancid, Bad Times at the El Royale at least lives up to its name.
Eli Roth’s Death Wish poses two improbable 2018 prospects: What are the chances that modern audiences are clamouring not only for a remake of a pro-vigilante series that stretched on for five films and strained all manner of credibility and good taste – but also a new film starring Bruce Willis, age 62, but acting with all the vim and vigour of a man three decades his senior? Head-scratchers, both. Yet Roth and his Death Wish co-conspirators convinced MGM to fund one of the most ill-timed, ill-conceived, ill-executed and just plain ill – as in sick, diseased, rotten – films to grace the big screen all year.
Escape Plan 2: Hades
There is a time and place for dumb-as-rocks action movies. There is no time nor place for Escape Plan 2: Hades, an inexcusably cheap sequel to what was a decent, if stone-stupid, 2013 film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie wisely decided to not return, with producers compensating by offering Dave Bautista (sure), Chinese superstar Xiaoming Huang (all right) and Jesse Metcalfe (uh-oh). I wasn’t expecting a riveting narrative, but even the basic principles of a movie are alien concepts here – scenes are cut to make no spatial sense, actors seem to be performing in different rooms (or continents), and the action is incomprehensible. I have no one but myself to blame for wasting 96 minutes of my life: Escape Plan 2 went straight to video-on-demand in Canada, so I dipped into $5.99 of my son’s RESP account to watch what I hoped would be an entertainingly idiotic prison-break movie. Sorry, son! (I promise not to pay for the upcoming and very real Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station … probably.)
Another film that miraculously bypassed Canadian theatres – yet I was dumb enough to fork over real money for – Gotti should have been the perfect bad movie. John Travolta, 64, plays the notorious gangster starting from his 20s (!), and with a zeal that can only be described as “gooooood lord, John.” Kevin Connolly directs as if he’s the heir to Martin Scorsese, without realizing he’s just E from Entourage. The script goes out of its way to portray John Gotti as a man of the people who never did much wrong (even those five murders he was convicted of). And best-worst of all, according to American critics who saw the film, Gotti is jammed with an obscene amount of bizarre musical cues. (Who thought it’d be a good idea to score a car-bomb scene to the opening beat of Pet Shop Boys' West End Girls? Well, that’d be E from Entourage.) But the version Canadian audiences endured – or at least the one I rented via iTunes Canada – was absent all those needle-drops, replaced with generic soundtrack riffs. Meaning I only got a bad-bad movie. And that’s a crime not even E from Entourage should forgive.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Speaking of unforgivable crimes, can someone kindly inform J.K. Rowling that she no longer needs to be robbing her fans blind? Both boring and offensively convoluted, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a naked attempt at squeezing every last galleon out of Rowling’s cinematic Harry Potter universe – and the author has only herself to blame. While her screenplay for 2016′s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could coast on franchise nostalgia and the fact that it had a loose connection to her “fictional encyclopedia” of the same name, The Crimes of Grindelwald is fresh material, but scripted as if Rowling was still writing a textbook. The entire endeavour is so crass, sloppy and infuriating (especially the “twist” ending, although the film contains no real ending at all) that it treads close to zero-star, brand-killing territory.
The Happytime Murders
I realize things are tough in Hollywood, but let’s save our collective sympathy for the poor studio executive who finally caught up with Peter Jackson’s vulgar 1989 Muppet-skewing comedy Meet the Feebles and declared, “Hey, let’s do exactly that … but worse!” And shed some tears for Melissa McCarthy, who must be so hard-up for cash that she’s obligated to do a so-very-loud version of her usual shtick – foul-mouthed wrecking-ball – to keep audiences awake when The Happytime Murders’s director Brian Henson (yes, son of Jim) resorts to having his puppets drop F-bombs instead of delivering actual jokes. (At least McCarthy was rewarded with the excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me? later in the year.) But the real pity must be saved for the underpaid puppeteers who crouched, ducked and manoeuvred all over Happytime’s set, only for their physical labour to be used in the service of a Sesame Street-meets-Bright mess.
Dedicated admirers of Canadian film might remember the news last fall that Telefilm Canada would be increasing its support for first-time filmmakers, with the aim of funding 50 films a year with cash funding capped at $120,000 for each project. Others may recall that Telefilm also contributed $3.97-million to the Toronto-shot romcom Little Italy. I guess it’s all about karmic balance, as the film is either a remarkable act of misguided self-parody – a work so subversive that any trace of artistic irony ends up being invisible to the naked eye – or a solid case that its filmmakers (only a few of whom are Canadian) fundamentally misunderstand the words “romantic” and “comedy.”
Mark Wahlberg didn’t pummel us with a Transformers movie this year (that task was left to fellow tough guy John Cena in Bumblebee), but he still indulged his worst instincts with Mile 22. The wannabe franchise-starter positions Wahlberg as an obnoxious CIA savant who bleeds red, white and blue. But while the title promises 22 miles worth of action, most of the film takes place in enclosed, dimly lit locations, all captured cheaply and ineptly by frequent Wahlberg collaborator Peter Berg. What’s worse is the astounding hubris of Mile 22′s final five minutes. Without detailing much – not to protect any carefully crafted twists, but because it’s exhausting to fully recount the stupidity – the film’s last few moments act as the most blatant and crass cinematic up-sell of all time. Closing out a film by laying the groundwork for a sequel is one thing, but ending a film without revealing what happened to its characters – actually telling audiences that the only way you will find out how this whole shebang ends is by demanding a not-yet-produced follow-up – is a trick too dirty for even this annual list of unforgivable offenders.
In 2009, writer-director Duncan Jones made a fun and trippy feature debut with Moon. In the years since, Jones (son of David and Angie Bowie) has struggled to live up to Moon’s promise, delivering one big-budget misfire (Warcraft) and this year’s extraordinarily ill-conceived Mute. Jones’s passion project languished in development for years until Netflix came along, but the streaming giant really should’ve just spent however much the movie cost on the rights to a few more decades of Friends. An unwatchable mash-up of Blade Runner, Witness and M*A*S*H, Mute makes all the wrong decisions, all the time. Wasting the talents of stars Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux and Alexander Skarsgard is fine, but tying in elements of Moon’s continuity is one wrong move too many. Mute wastes everyone’s time, but also retroactively ruins memories of Jones’s best movie.
Both a reminder that Jennifer Garner used to kick serious butt on television’s Alias and a push to place her in late-career Liam Neeson territory, Peppermint leaves all sorts of terrible tastes in your mouth. The premise has potential, in a grindhouse sort of way, with Garner playing a doting mother who goes vigilante after her husband and young daughter are gunned down by L.A. gangbangers. Yet Garner is saddled with a director who doesn’t know how to stage a fight (let alone a minute of genuine emotion), and bad-hombre villains plucked from the fever dreams of Donald Trump. The plot holes are large, the violence is preposterous and its star can only put on a brave face and blow someone up. You’ll wish it were you!