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A Dozen Sleazy Reporters

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Newspaper reporters make great bad guys. They’re nosy, they’re impertinent and they often dress lousy. Here are my picks for the worst of the lot.

KATE MARA IN “HOUSE OF CARDS”

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TV audiences are getting a real treat with Mara’s performance on the Netflix original series, “House of Cards.” She’s a talented, twisted scribe who has no ethical boundaries in her pursuit of personal fame. She’s scary good.

BURT LANCASTER IN “SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS”

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Lancaster is pure evil as columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “Sweet Smell of Success.” He makes and breaks reputations, reveling in the tremendous power he wields. That’s not a good thing if you’re trying to marry J.J.’s beloved sister. Burt is like a coiled snake.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES”

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This is not one of Bruce’s better films, for a variety of reasons. However, his tabloid reporter character here is highly memorable. He opportunistically pounces on a scandal involving race, class and politics and holds on for dear life.

MIRANDA RICHARDSON IN “HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE”

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I love her name: Rita Skeeter. She’s the snarky reporter in the Harry Potter series, and she definitely puts a spin on her stories – complete with questionable quotes and outright lies. She can’t even get poor Harry’s age right.

BRODERICK CRAWFORD IN “SCANDAL SHEET”

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Crawford, who plays the gruff editor of a tawdry “scandal sheet,” has a bit of a situation on his ink-stained hands. The wife he used to beat up and then abandoned has threatened to expose him. He deals with her in the way film noir characters usually do, but then he has to assign one of his reporters to cover the story and hope he doesn’t get caught. Get me rewrite!

HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN IN “SHATTERED GLASS”

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This is perhaps the most frightening item on The List, because it’s a true story. “Shattered Glass” is the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated parts of dozens of stories in The New Republic magazine. It’s one of those movies that slowly, painfully reveals the depths of the villain’s deception. Peter Sarsgaard is very good as the editor who gets to the truth.

ROBERT DUVALL IN “THE NATURAL”

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Sports reporters can be sleazy, too. In the great baseball movie, “The Natural,” Duvall is clearly more interested in a juicy yarn than in the game. He’s just as corrupt, in his own way, as a greedy owner or a player on the take.

BARBARA STANWYCK IN “MEET JOHN DOE”

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Because this ends up being a comedy-drama with social overtones, you tend to forget that Stanwyck’s character did something pretty bad. She’s being laid off from her gig as a newspaper columnist, and she decides to print a letter from a made-up person threatening to kill himself on Christmas Eve because the world is unfair to the downtrodden. It gets even worse when the paper hires Gary Cooper to be the fictional “John Doe.”

ORSON WELLES IN “CITIZEN KANE”

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I had to include good, old Charles Foster Kane, although he’s more of an executive than a lowly reporter. Apart from the film’s overall greatness, it is also a testament to the notion that information is power. You can even start a war with it.

AUBREY PLAZA IN “SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED”

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Even interns need to follow this rule: Don’t get emotionally involved with your source. That’s especially true if he claims to be a time traveler.

SALLY FIELD IN “ABSENCE OF MALICE”

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This is a tough one, because Sally Field’s reporter character isn’t intentionally trying to do harm. But that’s the point. By being so easily manipulated (thanks Bob Balaban!) she indeed does great harm to Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon. It’s an excellent film.

KIRK DOUGLAS IN “ACE IN THE HOLE”

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My man Kirk is magnificently malevolent in this picture, directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder. Kirk is a former New York City reporter, now working in New Mexico, who stumbles across a gripping story of a man trapped in a cave. Not only does he delay the rescue operation in order to string out the story an extra day or two – he seduces the wife of the guy in the cave! That’s just wrong. “Ace in the Hole” is a smart, snappy tale of sensationalism gone wild.

Wow. That’s a lot of jerky journalists.

Bruce Willis – King of Sci-Fi

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He’s much better known for action flicks and comedies, but in my book the ever-smirking Bruce Willis excels most at sci-fi. His low key, Everyman quality has a way of grounding outlandish stories, be they about time traveling hit men or kids who see dead people. So here’s a tip of the cap to a guy who knows his way around an apocalyptic wasteland.

TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

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Willis is perfect as a conflicted, ill-prepared man from the future who is sent back in time to gather information about a bio-terror event that will decimate the planet. “Twelve Monkeys” is gritty and weird, and Willis just goes with the flow. His character’s confusion mirrors the jumble of images and twists in the film itself. Plus, we get to see Brad Pitt doing his screwy eyeball thing. Great sci-fi.

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

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Here we get the quiet Willis, which I find even more effective. In “The Sixth Sense,” he plays a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma. He encounters a young man who insists he SEES DEAD PEOPLE, so naturally he drops everything to help the kid. Of course, it turns out he’s got an even bigger problem, but that’s not for me to divulge. What I will say is that Bruce listens to the boy and treats him with such respect that it absolutely draws in the audience – that, and the ghosts.

LOOPER (2012)

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“Looper” was one of my favorite movies last year, and Willis is a major reason. His aging hit man is by turns weary, wistful, sarcastic and filled with rage. It’s a mature performance, particularly in scenes where he encounters his younger self. The script is very smart and the dialogue is peppy in a film noir sort of way, if film noir included references to telekinesis.

THE KID (2000)

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Of course, Bruce had some previous experience meeting a younger version of himself. In the family comedy, “The Kid,” he spends some quality time with the chubby kid he used to be. The result is genuinely warm and funny, because Willis is so natural with young Spencer Breslin.

SURROGATES (2009)

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Little seen when it came out a few years back, “Surrogates” gives us both the makeup-and-wig Willis and the bald and craggy Willis. He plays a cop in a future society where people can implant their consciousness into a better looking, android version of themselves. It’s like a really good “Twilight Zone” episode, but with actual production values.

DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)

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This was a special effects extravaganza at the time, with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as a pair of ladies willing to sell their souls for eternal youth. Willis is the nebbish caught in the middle of the triangle. It’s hardly his best work, but in the final third of the movie he injects a tiny bit of humanity into his performance.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

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While I’m not a huge fan of “The Fifth Element,” I applaud its wayyyy out there sensibility. Everything from the costumes to the plot are wild and crazy. Willis is doing his take on Han Solo, in a way, or simply applying some “Die Hard” swagger to the intergalactic chaos. Look for a blond Bruce and a stunningly odd Gary Oldman.

ARMAGEDDON (1998)

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I liked “Armageddon.” Please don’t judge me. It’s just a big, fun popcorn flick about nutty tough guys and an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Willis takes on something of a John Wayne vibe from “The Hellfighters,” and gets great support from a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton. He also gets a full-throttle, schmaltzy hero scene right before the end. Male weepie sci-fi at its finest.

PLANET TERROR (2007)

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Not familiar with “Planet Terror”? You may know it better as one of the parody movies from “Grindhouse,” which featured two movies and fake movie trailers written by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Willis is a supporting player here, in a gory spectacle full of guns and zombies.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)

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“Unbreakable” is my favorite Willis sci-fi film. He plays a quietly unhappy, family man who gradually realizes he has extraordinary gifts. Willis has so many wonderful moments of stillness in this movie. You feel his struggle and understand his decency – it’s amazing. Better yet, it’s one of those sci-fi movies where the ordinary, daily life scenes are just as engaging as the superhuman scenes.

So that’s my case. What do you think?

Jimbo’s Film Faves of 2012

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Looking back, there were more than a few good flicks released in 2012 – and in many genres. Among my favorites this year were historical dramas, comedies, science fiction, a political thriller, quirky romances and some riveting character stories. Here they are, with this caveat: Due to the vagaries of movie distribution, I still haven’t seen some of the most-praised films coming out at the end of the year, including “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Impossible.”

ARGO

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“Argo” does many things and does all of them very well. It’s a period piece, set during the Iranian hostage crisis; it’s a comedy; it’s an action/thriller. Director Ben Affleck does an amazing job of fitting all those elements together seamlessly, while taking on the starring role himself. The cast is stellar, including the great Alan Arkin and John Goodman. But what elevates “Argo” is the way it presages current events in the Middle East without beating us over the head with it.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

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You can’t ask for much more in a film than to have it take a locale you think you know and transform it into something utterly exotic and foreign. Here, an American bayou villageĀ  after a devastating flood becomes a new universe where a little girl (the incredible Quvenzhane Wallis) brazenly battles demons large and small. It’s one of those movies where you can’t take your eyes off the screen for a second.

FLIGHT

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Denzel Washington adds to his impressive roster of riveting lead performances. “Flight” is the story of a commercial pilot who makes a daring, emergency landing, then has to answer some tough questions about his personal life. The sequence inside the aircraft is truly harrowing, but it’s the downward emotional spiral later on that stays with you.

FRIENDS WITH KIDS

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Great ensemble cast, led by Adam Scott and director Jennifer Westfeldt. I’m a sucker for witty banter, particularly when it’s coming out of the mouths of funny people who are oblivious to their own flaws. The premise has to do with two friends who decide to have a baby and not bother with any of the messy love/relationship stuff. My only quibble was with the inevitable ending. Supporting players Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd are terrific.

LINCOLN

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Towering achievement by a trio of great collaborators – director Steven Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and actor Daniel Day-Lewis – examining the greatest American president in one of his most crucial periods. What’s remarkable is the fact that this movie is all about a political process, with no real physical action. Why does it work? Why is it mesmerizing? Because we are drawn to Lincoln’s every word and expression. He is a monument made real for us, thanks to careful staging, brilliant words and unforgettable acting.

LOOPER

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For those of us who love a good time-travel movie, “Looper” is a revelation. It’s intelligent and uncompromising, with dashes of unexpected humor balancing out the flashes of violence. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in subtle makeup, plays a hit man who is given the task of killing his older self, played by Bruce Willis. Among the superior supporting cast are Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels.

MOONRISE KINGDOM

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Not everyone is a fan of Wes Anderson’s fragile, cinematic imaginings, but I am. It’s all about the details and quirks for Anderson, even in this tale of obsessive, young love at a summer camp in the 1960s. As with all Anderson films, the adults here, including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton, are more lost than the kids.

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN

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Quirkiness also abounds in this romance about an awkward scientist (Ewan McGregor) and a Yemeni sheik’s aide (Emily Blunt) who try to bring salmon fishing to the Middle East. It’s fascinating to watch McGregor and Blunt convince themselves and the audience that they’re a good match, despite all appearances.

THE SESSIONS

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I don’t think “The Sessions” is about sex, although sex is discussed throughout this film about a paralyzed man (John Hawkes) who goes to a sex therapist (Helen Hunt). It’s really about affection in all of its forms, from mere acquaintanceship and friendship to platonic love and physical intimacy. Hawkes and Hunt are excellent.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

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I absolutely loved this movie. It has real heart and soul, with laughs that billow out from deep places in your gut and honest moments of concern for these wonderfully flawed characters. Without a doubt, “Silver Linings Playbook” is the best bipolar-sports superstition-sibling rivalry-dance movie ever made. Also, big kudos to Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Chris Tucker.

SLEEPWALK WITH ME

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This movie didn’t make it to many theaters, but it’s hilarious. The brilliant stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed and starred in it, and it’s based on his own life. He’s telling us the story of his early days as a comic, along with the severe sleepwalking condition that plagues him. Even when he’s explaining something terrible he did, he’s completely sympathetic.

YOUR SISTER’S SISTER

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Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt star in this indie feature about an incredibly complicated set of relationships between a woman, her male best friend and her sister. The acting here is top-notch, with speedy, perceptive dialogue and more than a few twists. At the heart of it is Duplass, who is an expert at conveying a very specific sort of smart, funny, pompous, wounded guy in his 30s.

I wholeheartedly recommend all of these!

On the Couch: Memorable TV & Movie Therapists

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Pop culture and therapy are an amazingly good match. First of all, most worthy comedies and dramas are populated with people facing sizable problems. Secondly, introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker cuts to the heart of the matter without special effects or car chases. It also makes for insightful writing and acting.

LORRAINE BRACCO IN “THE SOPRANOS”

Lorraine Bracco was as crucial to the success of “The Sopranos” as the sex and violence that punctuated the show. Dr. Melfi’s sessions with Tony brought clarity to the proceedings and had an electrifying intimacy separate from everything else.

BOB NEWHART IN “THE BOB NEWHART SHOW”

I have a feeling Newhart’s portrayal of psychologist Robert Hartley was more accurate than most TV and movie therapists. He used jargon, he rarely raised his voice and he kept incredibly regular office hours. Thank goodness he also treated the occasional clown.

ROBIN WILLIAMS IN “GOOD WILL HUNTING”

Not everyone is a fan of Williams as the feisty therapist helping Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” I liked his performance; I thought it had tons of heart and soul. How do you like them apples?

MARIAH CAREY IN “PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE”

It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Carey is as the social worker in “Precious.” She’s as tough as she needs to be in a film about hope in the face of brutal reality. Is there anything in this world more courageous than standing up for an abused kid? An amazing job.

JUDD HIRSCH IN “ORDINARY PEOPLE”

This fine performance is central to the effectiveness of 1980’s Oscar-winning “Ordinary People.” Hirsch’s scenes with a young Timothy Hutton have a real urgency to them, while noting the limitations and boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.

LISA KUDROW IN “WEB THERAPY”

Lisa Kudrow is a master at delivering the disarming remark. She did it to perfection on “Friends” and she continues it on “Web Therapy.” As highly-flawed Dr. Fiona Wallice, Kudrow levels her snark on everyone, including herself.

STEVE CARELL IN “HOPE SPRINGS”

For such a skilled comic actor, it’s surprising how good Carell is at playing a subdued character. This is a great quality for his therapist in “Hope Springs.” He’s patient, probing and decent, without being boring.

ALLAN ARBUS IN “M*A*S*H”

Allan Arbus was always a welcome sight on “M*A*S*H,” as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Funny and fatigued as that character was, his appearances never failed to remind viewers of the insanity of war.

JOANNE WOODWARD IN “SYBIL”

Joanne Woodward brought a wonderful sense of authority and humanity to her part in “Sybil.” Sally Field, as a woman with multiple personalities, had the showier role, but Woodward had to give the whole thing plausibility.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “FRASIER”

I doubt that any actual therapist has as soothing a voice as Kelsey Grammer. On “Frasier,” he offered a tour de force of comical compassion, without hiding the quirky side of the people giving the treatment.

HELEN HUNT IN “THE SESSIONS”

Helen Hunt is her usual, decent-but-intense self in “The Sessions.” She plays a sex therapist here, and much has been made of her willingness to bare everything onscreen. I thought her most revealing scene was in a car in a motel parking lot, fully clothed.

RICHARD BURTON IN “EQUUS”

In “Equus,” Burton is a doctor treating a very disturbed young man who has blinded several horses. What unfolds during their sessions is a deep well of guilt, trauma, religion and sex. As you’d expect, Burton brings heaps of dramatic heft to the part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

DYLAN McDERMOTT IN “AMERICAN HORROR STORY”

Worst. Therapist. Ever. I don’t know where this joker went to school, but I’m pretty sure they tell you on the very first day, “Don’t have sex with patients who are ghosts.”

JANE LYNCH IN “TWO AND A HALF MEN”

As Charlie Sheen’s therapist on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Lynch was able to talk tough, but also be sympathetic. It was a clever way to reveal Sheen’s – I mean the character’s – insecurities and motivations.

BILLY CRYSTAL IN “ANALYZE THIS”

Light fare, to be sure, but Crystal generated very solid laughs as a shrink forced to work with a mobster in “Analyze This.” He clearly loved being in a film with Robert DeNiro, who was in full self-parody mode.

J.K. SIMMONS IN “LAW AND ORDER”

What a superb job Simmons did with this small, occasional role as a psychiatrist who sometimes testifies in court cases on the various “Law and Order” shows. He was calm, yet razor-sharp in his scenes evaluating suspects and victims; he could seem jaded and cynical, yet also honest and hardworking.

ANNA KENDRICK IN “50/50”

Therapists have to start somewhere, right? It was brilliant to have Anna Kendrick as the inexperienced caregiver to cancer patient Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It flipped the normal power dynamic and felt much more real.

RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”

This movie about a therapist (Dreyfuss) who can’t get away from a patient (Bill Murray) has many devoted fans. Dreyfuss gamely gives in to the rising exasperation the part calls for, which is why it works so well.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE SIXTH SENSE”

What I often like about Bruce Willis is his ability to be very still. It comes in quite handy in “The Sixth Sense,” where he’s trying to help Haley Joel Osment deal with a … tricky situation. Willis listens with a thoughtful intensity.

GABRIEL BYRNE IN “IN TREATMENT”

“In Treatment” isn’t simply a great TV show about therapy; I think it’s one of the best shows ever. Byrne plays Dr. Paul Weston, whose patients range from a cancer patient and a troubled businessman to a little boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce. Each season, the show tracked the progress of several patients, session by session. Byrne is astonishing, as is the delicate-yet-powerful writing.

But I see our time is up. I didn’t even get to the therapists in “Annie Hall,” “Mad Men” or “The Prince of Tides.” Which are your favorites?

Color My Black & White World

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Sometimes a dash of color makes all the difference. That’s never more true than when a black and white movie mixes in a splash of red, blue or yellow to heighten the emotion or present a bit of handy symbolism. Naturally, I have a few favorites.

PLEASANTVILLE (1998)

“Pleasantville” is an underrated film with a great cast that includes Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon and J.T. Walsh. Two teens are transported to the world of a black and white TV sitcom. As the locals experience strong emotions – love, creativity, desire – they burst into color. It’s also a story about conformity, prejudice, fascism and fear.

RUMBLE FISH (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” is a surreal swirl of testosterone and youthful disillusionment. At a key moment it offers a tiny slice of color: blue and red fighting fish that Mickey “Motorcycle Boy” Rourke frees from a pet store.

SIN CITY (2005)

Rarely have random bits of color exploded and popped with the ferocity they do in “Sin City.” It’s a comic book adaptation, and the colors reflect a dazzling, hyper-stylized sensibility. They’re perfectly matched to the dynamic, black and white performances of Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen and Mr. Mickey Rourke.

WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Bruno Ganz plays an angel who dreams of seeing the world in color and experiencing life as a mortal. He gets his wish after he falls in love and falls to Earth. This Wim Wenders film is a personal favorite of mine, and the transfer from black and white to color is amazing.

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

One of the great films of the past few decades. Steven Spielberg’s story from the Holocaust includes a couple of emotionally devastating scenes featuring a little girl in a red coat. We see her walking in one scene; later, we see the red coat in a pile of bodies. No dialogue, just a haunting image.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)

This is Oscar Wilde’s famous story of a young man who wishes that his portrait would age, but he himself wouldn’t. Years pass, and the portrait absorbs all of Dorian Gray’s physical age and moral depravity. The 1945 black and white version boasts a pair of color sequences featuring the portrait itself. I love how the use of color here is both beautiful and garish.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

A good case can be made that the scene in which Dorothy emerges from black and white Kansas and steps into the colorful land of Oz is the best special effect in movie history. It is stunning, even disorienting, in the way it instantly takes us to another realm. Here’s a shout-out to the boys in The Lollipop Guild.

I’ll bet there are a few good ones I’ve missed. Drop me a line and add them to The List!

Great Cast, Terrible Movie

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Sometimes, a movie’s casting math just doesn’t add up. You get a couple of terrific leads, surround them with dynamite supporting players and you end up with – a great big mess. It’s quite amazing, actually. Here are some of my favorite, star-studded disasters.

MIXED NUTS (1994)

Get a load of this cast: Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, Robert Klein and Rob Reiner, plus Liev Schreiber, Rita Wilson, Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia. Its a comedy juggernaut, except it’s really, really not. This royal stinker, about a suicide hotline at Christmas, is stunningly bad.

AIRPORT ’77

I could have chosen just about any disaster flick of the 1970s, such as “Earthquake,” or “The Towering Inferno,” but this is the one I always found particularly annoying. You had heavyweights such as Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, M. Emmet Walsh, Christopher Lee and, of course, George Kennedy, all pretending they were in a better movie.

AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (2001)

This one is inexplicable. The cast included John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci, Alan Arkin, Seth Green and Rainn Wilson. To say this romantic comedy didn’t gel is a vast understatement.

LOVE AFFAIR (1994)

Speaking of bad romantic comedies, this Warren Beatty-Annette Bening picture is one of the worst ever. It’s stultifyingly bad. The thing is, it also dragged down the great Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan, Harold Ramis and Lisa Edelstein with it. This was no way to treat Hollywood royalty.

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

I’m using one example here to represent the many, later-period Woody Allen films that wasted great casts. “Shadows and Fog,” an ode to German expressionist films, was a boring movie that seemed to taunt audiences with all the talent going underutilized: Woody, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Wallace Shawn and Madonna. And that’s just a partial list.

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988)

Underneath all that colorful fur are Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Jeff Goldblum. It’s a shame, really. The movie makes a great effort to be fun and funky – but that fur!? Come on. Also along for the ride are Geena Davis and Michael McKean.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)

Dark, dark comedy here that might have been too caustic for its own good. It’s a story about egos gone amok in the children’s entertainment industry, with valiant efforts by Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart and Danny DeVito. No sale.

SPHERE (1998)

Sorry, but Dustin Hoffman in space does not work for me. When I see Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber on a cast list together, I want a feisty, gritty urban drama – not a cold, slow-moving space thriller.

THE AVENGERS (1998)

This update on the stylish Brit TV series is a bit of a steaming pile, wot wot. It’s like some horrible hallucination in which Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent and Eddie Izzard recite gibberish and run around in odd clothing. As I mentioned in a previous list, Connery actually dons a teddy bear costume in this one. Yikes.

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990)

Tom Wolfe’s famous novel about class collisions in New York City made for a glorious train wreck of a film. There was absolutely no chemistry, and often the actors seemed to be taking wild stabs at how to play the material. We may never see Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst in another movie together.

That should get us started. Add to The List!