Fences, Denzel Washington’s screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, will open wide this Christmas Day. It’s another in a tradition of carefully selected movies making their theatrical debuts on December 25.
While studios usually opt to release their seasonal fare in the weeks leading up to the holiday, thereby allowing for audience awareness and, hopefully, positive word of mouth to build before the big day, they sometimes decide to hold out for the 25th. Right or wrong, studios figure their film is good enough to lure viewers away from all those new gifts and sumptuous feasts and straight into the multiplexes.
Happily, Fences is worth the post-presents trip out of the house, thanks largely to the award-worthy turns by Washington and Viola Davis. That’s not the case, however, for the following 15 titles, all of which make the grade as the worst Christmas Day openers of the past 25 years.
15. An American Werewolf In Paris
Honestly, do most people even remember that John Landis’ 1981 horror fave An American Werewolf in London sired a sequel? Arriving 16 years after the original — and with Landis not involved in any capacity — this sloppy second proved to be too little, too late, and too lame.
In the midst of a so-called “Daredevil Tour of Europe,” Andy (Tom Everett Scott) and his dude-bros hit Paris, where he decides to bungee jump off the Eiffel Tower. This feat leads to an encounter with Serafine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian beauty who, alas, turns out to be a werewolf. Soon, Andy also becomes a loup-garou, pitting him against a neo-Aryan army of werewolves who want to rid the world of American tourists and other undesirables.
Makeup maestro Rick Baker won an Oscar for the first film’s incredible transformation scenes, but the creators of this follow-up opted to go with CGI instead. It was the wrong call, since the effects employed to create the lycanthropes aren’t convincing and rarely seem to be integrated to the backdrop of any given scene. Where’s a silver bullet when you really need one?
14. The Postman
This notorious 1997 bomb from director-star Kevin Costner is set in the post-apocalyptic America of 2013, a ravaged landscape in which the remaining communities have no means of communication with each other. Enter The Postman (Costner), a drifter who tries to pass himself off as a mail carrier — the ruse is simply a way to land steady provisions from trusting souls, but once he sees the hope glistening in the eyes of those around him, he realizes the importance of uniting the nation by any means necessary.
Costner has never backed away from playing ornery jerks, but The Postman was the film where he started to develop a messiah complex. Costner the director lavishes all sorts of attention on Costner the actor, from laughably reverential dialogue (“You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket”) to loving close-ups to gauzy slow-motion montages. After three grueling hours of vaingloriousness, it’s hardly a shock when someone finally erects a statue honoring Costner’s postman; it’s just surprising there’s no celestial postscript where he’s glimpsed sitting at God’s side.
13. Point Break
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action yarn Point Break has its share of both supporters and detractors, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking to the streets to champion this lamentable remake from 2015.
A costly misfire, Point Break Version 2.0 takes the first film’s basic premise — surfer dudes spend their days catching huge waves and robbing banks — and expands it to make a half-hearted pro-environmental plea about giving back to the earth by having your crimes sponsored by some rich guy. Or something to that effect. Yes, it’s even dopier than the ’91 model.
As FBI agent Johnny Utah and spiritual gang leader Bodhi, Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze relied more on their charm than their wavering acting chops to carry the original. For all their promise in other projects, Luke Bracey and Edgar Ramirez simply can’t muster any modicum of magnetism, exhibiting all the warmth of a pair of redwoods. Point Break is impressive in that all of the stunts are performed by extreme-sports stars — no CGI here — but beyond that, there’s nothing here of interest, with the story feeling like a stopgap between the various adrenaline rushes.
12. Bedtime Stories
It’s hard to feel the glow of the holiday season when a man bonds with his niece and nephew by telling them that he’ll always be around “like the stink on feet.”
Then again, there’s an unpleasant odor emanating from just about every scene in 2008’s Bedtime Stories, in which a handyman named Skeeter Bronson (Adam Sandler) discovers that the tall tales he spins have a magical way of coming true. He hopes that these fantasy yarns will somehow allow him to ascend to the position of hotel manager, but for now, they merely result in him getting bombarded by a shower of gumballs and kicked in the shins by an angry dwarf.
The tragedy of Bedtime Stories is that several fine performers — Guy Pearce as a prissy villain, Lucy Lawless as his right-hand woman, and Keri Russell as Skeeter’s colorless love interest — all find themselves playing second banana to a somnambular Sandler. Instead, the most memorable supporting characters turn out to be Bugsy, a CGI-assisted guinea pig with saucer-sized eyes, and a Native American chief (Rob Schneider) who waves his hand behind his butt as he discusses “fire and wind” (get it?). Unfortunately, they’re memorable in the worst way — as symbols of a potentially interesting movie that comes crashing down hard.
11. 47 Ronin
The story of the 47 ronin, a group of leaderless samurai seeking revenge at the start of the 18th century, is an integral part of Japanese history, honored over the course of three centuries through art, music and literature. The true-life tale has also been told in various Japanese films, but Hollywood naturally figured it could improve on the legend with a few additions of its own. Dragons! Shape shifters! Keanu Reeves! 3-D!
The lumbering 47 Ronin, held from release for an entire year to allow for expensive reshoots and script rewrites, debuted stateside at the end of 2013, where it grossed only $38 million against a gargantuan $175 million budget. Even in Japan, where Universal Pictures foolishly expected it to do well despite its pillaging of that country’s history, it performed poorly. Maybe, just maybe, Hollywood suits finally learned that not every epic film needs to be patterned after The Lord of the Rings and not every foreign tale needs to have a white (or white-passing) guy — in this case, Reeves’ fictional half-British outsider — at its center?
Perhaps inspired by the success that fellow countryman Alejandro Amenabar enjoyed with 2001’s The Others, Spain’s Jaume Balaguero wrote and directed a horror yarn filmed on European locations but cast with English-speaking actors.
Released in Spain in 2002 and throughout the rest of Europe in 2003, the moribund Darkness was kept from seeing the light of day by its U.S. distributor until December 25, 2004, when it effectively served as a cinematic lump of coal for curious filmgoers.
True Blood’s Anna Paquin stars as a teenager who moves into an eerie home in the Spanish countryside with her demented dad (Iain Glen), her mean mom (Lena Olin), and a younger brother (Stephan Enquist) who receives the bulk of the supernatural abuse being doled out by the house. The revelation of why their home is haunted arrives after a deadening opening hour in which nothing even remotely interesting occurs — what follows is more frantically paced but no less dull.
9. Four Rooms
The problem with anthology films is that they’re often only as good as their weakest entry. Unfortunately for this 1995 effort cobbled together by four indie writer-directors, the weakest entries are absolutely dreadful.
All four segments in Four Rooms are set in a Los Angeles hotel on New Year’s Eve, with a hapless bellboy named Ted (an over-the-top Tim Roth) serving as the connecting thread. The first is the worst: Allison Anders’ “The Missing Ingredient,” in which a coven of witches (including ones played by Madonna and Valeria Golino) seek sperm in order to bring a stripper back from the dead. Almost as rancid is Alexandre Rockwell’s “The Wrong Man,” which finds a pistol-wielding husband (David Proval) keeping watch over his bound-and-gagged wife (Jennifer Beals). Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man from Hollywood,” about a wacky wager, rips off a great episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with Tarantino and Bruce Willis as poor substitutes for Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre.
It’s up to Robert Rodriguez, bless his soul, to contribute the only watchable vignette. “The Misbehavers,” in which two rambunctious kids wreak havoc on a hotel room, isn’t great, but it does benefit from Antonio Banderas’ amusing performance as their dad and an uproarious finale.
8. Kate And Leopold
An utterly charming performance by Hugh Jackman gets wasted in this anemic underachiever from 2001. Meg Ryan, whose standing as the pixie queen of frothy romantic comedies had already begun to slip, stars as Kate, a successful sales executive whose career strength, according to her unctuous boss (Bradley Whitford), is that she knows what women want but thinks like a man. Naturally, it’s going to take one special individual to thaw her out. That would be Leopold (Jackman), a 19th century Duke who, via a scientific experiment conducted by Kate’s ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), ends up being transported to present-day New York.
Bland romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to come across a time travel tale as listless as this one — the first half, in which we watch Leopold predictably become perplexed by modern-day gadgets like toasters and telephones, is particularly rote.
More interesting than what plays out on the screen was the “oops” moment that occurred off it. When Kate and Leopold was initially screened for critics and preview audiences, a climactic plot twist meant that two of the characters had earlier in the film committed incest. Following the blowback, studio executives finally bothered to read the film’s script and realized the error of their ways — this in turn forced them to get hold of all existing prints and reloop the dialogue in order to alter the characters’ relationship and void the taboo coupling. Nice save, but it’s still a feeble flick.
7. The Bucket List
Two great actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, headline 2007’s The Bucket List, an utterly un-great film about terminal patients.
Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ seemingly equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who’s beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (make that daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned “bucket list” of activities they’ve always wanted to do. The list includes such items as “go skydiving” and “laugh until I cry“; unfortunately, “entertain audiences ” is nowhere to be found.
Between the uninspired efforts put forth by director Rob Reiner and scripter Justin Zackham, The Bucket List is a lazy and condescending package from top to bottom, as well as a particularly egregious waste of two durable Oscar winners.
6. Mr. Magoo
Leslie Nielsen was known as a dramatic actor (Forbidden Planet, The Poseidon Adventure) until his hilarious turn as Dr. “Don’t call me Shirley” Rumack in 1980’s Airplane! sent his career spinning off into a new direction. Unfortunately, for every Naked Gun entry that took advantage of his heretofore untapped comedic prowess, there was a Repossessed or a Wrongly Accused wasting his shtick in unworthy vehicles.
One of the worst of these offenders is 1997’s Mr. Magoo, which made a mockery of both Nielsen’s abilities and a beloved cartoon character. Nielsen, neither short enough nor bald enough to function as a live-action counterpart to the animated version, is put through painfully protracted routines as his oblivious and near-sighted bungler is falsely suspected of masterminding a jewel heist.
Pre-release protests by members of the National Federation of the Blind led to Disney adding this at the end: “The preceding film is not intended as an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight. Blindness or poor eyesight does not imply an impairment of one’s ability to be employed in a wide range of jobs, raise a family, perform important civic duties or engage in a well-rounded life. All people with disabilities deserve a fair chance to live and work without being impeded by prejudice.” Several critics (including Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert) found this insincere disclaimer more amusing than anything else in the film.
5. Cheaper By The Dozen
The 2003 Cheaper by the Dozen is a remake of the 1950 film of the same name (itself based on a true story), but there are several key differences — for starters, the earlier version doesn’t include a sequence in which a kid slips in the puddle of puke his brother produced moments earlier. Sure, it’s a gut-buster for the under-12 set, but adults will find the film’s humor on the sophomoric side and won’t miss that the “heartwarming” moments are more likely to cause heartburn.
As the dad forced to babysit a houseful of kids while Mom (Bonnie Hunt) tries to make it as an author, Steve Martin continues to chip away at his once-vibrant career. Meanwhile, Ashton Kutcher appears uncredited, playing an annoying model-actor who not only realizes that his looks are his meal ticket but also admits that he has no acting talent whatsoever. Sometimes they make it too easy.
4. Wolf Creek
Mileage may vary per viewer, but isn’t there something distasteful about releasing a movie as sadistic and nihilistic as Wolf Creek on a day that’s supposed to be all about family and generosity?
Writer-director Greg McLean’s 2005 film strands three college-age kids (Cassandra McGrath, Kestie Morassi, and Nathan Phillips) in the Australian Outback, where they meet a hulking roughneck (John Jarratt) who proceeds to slice and dice them as he sees fit. Wolf Creek bills itself as “Based On Real Events”– a dubious claim since the film is rife with the sort of boneheaded plotting that can only be found in sub-par thrillers of this nature.
As if releasing this on December 25 wasn’t disturbing enough, there’s also a scene in which one of the young protagonists finds himself attached to a wall crucifix-style, with his arms outstretched and nails hammered through the palms of his hands. Father, forgive them, for they clearly know not what they do.
3. The Spirit
Will Eisner’s seminal comic strip The Spirit deserved far better than this wretched camp outing, a film in which every jokey, self-aware remark lands with the force of an atomic bomb laying waste to a sand castle.
The plot of this 2008 atrocity finds The Spirit (a dull Gabriel Macht) facing off against his perennial nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a madman who’s intent on acquiring a potion that will render him immortal. Jackson’s performance might be the worst of his career, with writer-director Frank Miller further accommodating him via some horrendous dialogue and situations. As but one example, the first battle finds The Octopus smashing a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughing maniacally while declaring, “Toilets are always funny!” (this movie would know, since it clearly deserves to be flushed down one). Jackson even gets to dress up like a Nazi officer in one scene — why? We couldn’t tell you.
Aside from Disney’s 1940 masterpiece, Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio has been the source of many dubious film adaptations, including 1964’s animated Pinocchio In Outer Space and 1971’s X-rated The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (advertised with the tagline “It’s Not His Nose That Grows!”). In the annals of bad cinema, though, no version will ever approach writer-director-star Roberto Benigni’s 2002 take on the tale.
This Italian effort is a monumental achievement in practically every facet of inept filmmaking: joyless, idiotic, annoying, heavy-handed, visually atrocious, and often downright creepy. The 50-year-old Benigni cast himself as the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy, and his performance is both tiresome and terrifying. As for the Cricket, the Fox, and the Cat, their mere presence has the power to disturb impressionable young minds straight into adulthood.
As the rancid cherry on top, the dubbing by English-speaking actors (among them Regis Philbin, Glenn Close, and Breckin Meyer as Pinocchio) is particularly poor, with the words matching the lip movements about as well as those imported kung-fu flicks from the ‘70s.
1. Patch Adams
This ghastly 1998 release casts Robin Williams (in a cloying performance) as a medical student who believes in the adage “Laughter is the best medicine.” Patch does whatever it takes to bring smiles to the faces of the ill people around him — this includes dancing with bedpans on his feet and swimming in a pool filled with 12,000 pounds of wet noodles. But his unorthodox behavior stirs the wrath of the university’s humorless dean (Bob Gunton), who you know is the bad guy because his face is often lit from underneath, thereby giving him that menacing aura usually reserved for rapists and serial killers. Patch also annoys a fellow physician (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s actually the most sensible character in the film but is treated by the hack filmmakers as a lout simply because he won’t wear a clown nose like the insufferable Adams.
Patch Adams offensively trots out every hoary plot device, no matter how improbable, exploitative or downright moronic. Incidentally, the film is based on a real individual, Hunter “Patch” Adams, who needless to say, despises the picture.
Any guesses on if this year’s Christmas releases will join these ranks? Let us know in the comments!