Conan The Barbarian
Credit: Everett Collection

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the EW Critic’s Mailbag. Each week, I will attempt to answer your movie-related questions, try to absorb your celluloid body-blows rope-a-dope style, and hopefully, start a dialogue about what you’re obsessed with cinema-wise, old and new. For the kick-off column we received some excellent submissions about Mad Max: Fury Road’s Oscar chances, the social value of the Human Centipede franchise, the wisdom of making a Conan the Barbarian sequel, and actors who never lived up to their potential. So without further ado, let’s dig in…

“I actually really enjoyed Mad Max‘s Tom Hardy. I think he had a very below-the-radar performance perhaps because the others just shine more. Max’s personality doesn’t exactly scream ‘See me’ so I thought it was very well handled. The movie itself is a masterpiece to what you can do if you decide not to drown yourself in CGI, plus the directing is amazing, I didn’t even blink for two hours. All in all I have to say that personally I would consider the movie one of the best action films in the past 10 years and probably one of the few that doesn’t rely on special effects to make it fun.” —regywho

Not really a question, but I get your point, respect your enthusiasm, and marvel at your ability to keep from blinking for 120 minutes. I liked Fury Road too, although many of you didn’t seem to think so judging from the comments beneath my B review.

If I was grading the film based solely on George Miller’s bonkers action scenes, I would have given it an A+++++. And I thought Charlize Theron was amazing, too. I can’t wait to see whether she decides to keep going down the action-movie path because her grease-smeared, one-armed Furiosa was the best action heroine since Ripley and Sarah Connor. I guess in the end, though, I just felt kind of meh about Tom Hardy’s Max. I’ve heard a lot of people argue that Max’s character is beside the point and that Miller’s film is really a Trojan Horse, using the title Mad Max to get people to come to the theater and then give them something else—a sort of feminist bait and switch. I’m not buying that theory for a couple of different reasons. First, that’s a pretty cynical way to get people to see a movie they’d probably want to see anyway. And second, I don’t really see the point of giving longtime fans an “under-the-radar” Max. I’ve seen 1981’s The Road Warrior dozens of times and my love of that film has nothing to do with Mel Gibson’s under-the-radar performances. Why? Because it’s not under the radar at all. Is it subtle? Yes. Is it interior? Sure. Is he forced into violent circumstances he’d rather not be in? Absolutely. But Max, at least in my opinion, isn’t an under-the-radar kind of hero. He is the frickin’ radar. I really like Tom Hardy. I even like Tom Hardy behind the wheel of a car (see Locke). I just think he wasn’t all that compelling of a screen presence in Fury Road. He’s an incidental character. That said, I couldn’t agree with you more about the insane beauty of the film’s practical effects and old-school stunts. There were sequences in Fury Road where I actually thought someone might die while the camera was rolling. When you compare that to something like San Andreas, where, as disposably entertaining as it is, you never for a second believe anything you’re seeing with your eyes, then the intoxicating and nervously giddy power of practical effects becomes obvious. The Hoover Dam crumbling into rubble? Skyscrapers keeling over? The Golden Gate Bridge being devoured by a tsunami? It’s all fun to watch in a popcorn-snarfing sort of way, but there’s nothing visceral about it. It’s the difference between watching your 8-year-old nephew playing Grand Theft Auto for two hours and watching Evel Knievel break his neck attempting to jump over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace.

“Your opinion aside, do you feel Mad Max can earn one of the 10 Best Picture slots at the Academy Awards? I do. In my opinion, it was THAT good. Would it win? No. But I think it has a chance and will be on many critics’ top 10 lists in December.” —Jerry J. Sharell

I absolutely agree that Fury Road could take one of the 10 Best Picture slots at this year’s Oscars (if those rules remain). When the Academy gave their guidelines a makeover before the 2010 awards, it was exactly to give more genre-y movies like Mad Max a fighting chance at the top prize. As a result, Avatar, District 9, and even Up got Best Picture nominations that first year with the expanded field. The following year, in 2011, the freaky psychosexual thriller Black Swan and the Escher-like head trip Inception got Best Picture nods. These are precisely the kinds of films that never would have had a shot with the old rules in place. And that’s a good thing. But as they say—or at least, as losers like to say—sometimes just getting nominated is victory enough. Will Mad Max win? Let me just say this: I boldly predict that any movie with a pasty dude in a red onesie named “Coma, The Doof Warrior” who’s strapped to the front of a death mobile whaling on a double-necked guitar that shoots flames will never be mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi and Out of Africa.

“I almost always enjoy getting your input on new movies. However, I was quite shocked to see a review for The Human Centipede in the most recent issue. I cannot imagine any reason whatsoever that reviewers or their editors thought this movie should be given any room in any edition of the magazine. Yet your editors chose to not only offer a review, but gave the film a mention (along with a movie still that I can never un-see) on the Bullseye page as well. I understand that people have different tastes and I usually appreciate your diversity when choosing what to review. Unfortunately, this series of films has nothing to offer, no matter what type of movie any given reader enjoys. I can’t imagine that your average reader is seeking out this type of film. Should I expect to see reviews of child pornography or snuff films next?” —Suzanne

Listen, you just had to look at one little photo of The Human Centipede 3, I had to watch the whole damn thing.

I get what you’re saying. Movies about prisoners surgically attached ass-to-mouth aren’t your cup of tea. But here’s the thing: they are someone’s. In fact, those movies have pretty rabid cult followings (Hello, Clark Collis!). And believe it or not, I actually thought the first Human Centipede was kind of an interesting little mad-scientist movie. Disgusting, but interesting. It was like a torture-porn version of Frankenstein or The Island of Dr. Moreau. I hated the second one, but mostly because it was so shamelessly sleazy and shocking for the sake of being shocking. In that one, I think the director, Tom Six, was just trying to rub the audience’s noses in can-you-top-this depravity, which is never where great art comes from. Still, I suppose if one were to squint hard enough, you could make the case that it was at least trying to say something about the power of movies to compel unstable minds into committing copycat atrocities. The third film, on the other hand, is pretty much inexcusable on every level. It’s not just gross, it’s an exercise in bad faith with its admittedly unsqueamish fanbase.

As to your question of whether or not EW should be reviewing these movies, I vote yes. You don’t have to see the movie. You don’t even have to read the review if you don’t want to. But there are readers who are curious about films like The Human Centipede or Hostel or Saw that want to know if they’re any good before ponying up their hard-earned 10 bucks. And that, like it or not, is what we’re here for. If, on occasion, that means I have to sit through 90 minutes of crap and get my critic’s monocle all steamed up in a white-hot fit of outrage, well, I do this for you, dear reader.

“There’s a Conan The Barbarian sequel in the works. Do you think it has a chance of being a good film?” —@Bradical80

Before I answer that, let me first ask you a question: What is best in life?

Okay, with that out of the way, let me just say that I’m sort of on the fence about this one. I love, love, love Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. From Basil Poledouris’ amazing score, to the Wheel of Pain sequence, to, yes, the infamous “lamentations of the women” line. It contains some of the Austrian Oak’s finest onscreen moments and I have an old, worn-to-ribbons VHS cassette to back me up. So on one hand, my inner 12-year-old says, “Hell yeah, it’s gonna be good!” And the fact that Ahnuld himself is reportedly attached to the project, is encouraging news. But then I hear this little voice in my ear that says: “Not so fast!” And that voice belongs to Jason Momoa, the flavorless slab of beefcake who starred in Marcus Nispel’s godawful 2011 Conan reboot. And then I’m not so sure anymore. So the short answer is, I don’t know if it has a chance of being a good film. Hell, I suppose anything that doesn’t exist yet technically has a chance of being good. My fingers and toes, like yours, are crossed.

“Which actor with the greatest potential do you think has most squandered his career with bad movies? (Current or classic careers.) —Lucy

This is an excellent question! And to be honest, you don’t have to look a whole lot further than the previous reader’s question about The Human Centipede 3 to come up with a candidate: Eric Roberts. Seeing this once-brilliant actor in embarrassing trash like The Human Centipede 3 made me a die a little inside. Especially when you consider how promising he was back in the ‘80s in films like The Pope of Greenwich Village and Star 80. The answer to a question like this one also depends on when it’s being asked. If you’d asked me in 2000, right after The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (maybe the worst movie of the aughts), I might have said Robert De Niro. If, on the other hand, you asked the same question back in early 2008, right before The Wrestler came out, I might have gone with Mickey Rourke. But since you’re asking in 2015, I have to go with (and it pains me to even type this): Johnny Depp, who’s been playing the same paycheck-cashing eccentrics for so long now that he’s lost sight of what acting’s all about. Up until the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 2003, Depp had cobbled together a resume of colorfully daring (Ed Wood), emotionally poignant (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), defiantly uncommercial (Dead Man) performances. He was box-office poison, sure. But he could still be counted on to be both unpredictable and interesting. I think he probably took all the wrong lessons from the success of Jack Sparrow and has decided to keep delivering that same cartoonish performance ever since. Whether its Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins, or Tonto, he’s like a kid hitting the same off-pitch piano key over and over again thinking he’s composing a symphony.

I hope my answer changes in September when Depp’s Whitey Bulger movie, Black Mass, comes out. The trailer looks great and it seems like just the kind of role Depp needs for redemption.

That’s it for this installment of Ask the Critic. Join us again next Tuesday. And don’t forget to email your questions to me or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just comment below.