Posts Tagged ‘movie’

A Beginner’s Guide To Spotting Sucky Movies

April 15, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

It’s an age-old conundrum: How can I know if a film is worth seeing, without actually seeing the film?  With ticket prices as high as they are today, it makes sense that consumers wish to know – or to at least have a decent amount of probability – that they will enjoy a movie before they see it.  The goal here is to find the great movies, and avoid the godawful flicks.

I can be of some assistance in the latter half of that puzzle.

Assuming the potential ticket buyer either has no access to the film’s trailer, or is not satisfied with the information found there, it’s a good idea to read the reviews.  Still, reviews are opinions, and those of other people, no less.  How can this be helpful?

The key, dear friends, is in how the reviews are written.

First, a lesson in wording and definitions.  The review words “zany,” “wacky” and “madcap,” exclusively used in reviews of comedies, ironically means unfunny.  Not in a dictionarial sense, but in a real-world sense.  These three words come to a reviewer’s mind when a screen writer’s idea of ccmedy involves such tired images as pie throwing, stop-action sped-up chase scenes, and cartoony sound effects whenever someone is hit on the head with a real-life lethal object, such as a sledge hammer.  Unless you are under the age of six, and have time-portalled back to 1972, this is by no means cause for smiling, let alone roaring with laughter.  This is actually cause for peeking at your watch every three minutes and praying for end credits.  For the wiser set, these buzzwords are code for “Do not even think about coming near this film.  Pretty much, ever.”

And second, the excessive use of ellipses.  Ellipses are those three dots you see in movie reviews, placed between one-to-three-word bullet phrases, such as “. . . a must-see . . . brilliant . . .a classic!”  Now, legally, you cannot misrepresent someone’s exact words.  This is called libel.  Therefore, you cannot change someone’s words and keep quote marks around the phrasing, because they did not actually say what you’re writing.

However, there is a loophole.

Let’s say your film gets absolutely trashed by a respected reviewer.  Well, you certainly don’t want to write the awful remarks into your advertisements, but the conspicuous absence of a review by, say, a Roger Ebert might shout “Load of rubbish!” to the money-holding public, as well.  So what do you do?  Well, legally what you can do is quote a person’s words . . . even if you don’t quote all of them!  Take the above made-up review:

“. . . a must-see . . . brilliant . . .a classic!”

Sounds good, right?  But consider that since some words are missing, this could be an accurate partial quote of the sentence “This piece of garbage film will never be A MUST-SEE in my book!  The BRILLIANT thing to do is to avoid this mess of a movie like The Plague.  Only an escaped lunatic would consider this release A CLASSIC!”

Accurately partial-quoted, but somewhat misleading by the marketing squad, wouldn’t you say?  To be safe, don’t trust a review you can’t actually read.

I hope this tiny cinematic lesson has been of some service.  If I save one human being from sitting through one horrid film, I’ll consider my work here justified.

The Serenity of “Firefly”

April 8, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Browncoats Forever!

It’s pretty universally known that Fox Television is run by idiots.  They drop amazingly entertaining shows without a second thought, and let absolute mental drivel run for years.  So it was in 2003, when the suits at Fox yanked the completely original Joss Whedon accomplishment Firefly, after only 11 of the filmed 13 episodes had aired.  I myself didn’t discover the show until the fifth aired episode, after a good friend raved about it.  After seeing the single episode, I was completely hooked on the characters, the plot line and the fantastic writing.

I was lucky, in a way, that my first viewing was an episode loaded with background information on the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity.  I’m sure I was much less confused than those who had seen every previous show, since the network chose to debut the show with the second episode, and never aired the pilot.

Nathan (Castle) Fillion, who was at first hesitant to play the emotionally complex captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, embodies the completely human flawed-but-heroic central character.  You root for him, you laugh with him (and sometimes at him!), and you feel you would follow him anywhere.  Add to this a stellar and eclectic cast that features Ron (Barney Miller) Glass, Adam (Chuck) Baldwin, Gina (TV’s Huge) Torres and Alan (Spamalot!) Tudyk, and what you are presented with is a cast of characters that you honestly like and care about.

But, alas, there is Fox.

Against all odds, creator Joss Whedon and the Firefly cast and crew had the last laugh, when the fan base cried “Foul!” and demanded more.  Whedon finagled a feature film deal, and just two years after the show was cancelled, the big-screen adventure Serenity was released.  Designed to bring in new viewers, as well as delight the faithful, the film gave a quick-but-good intro to the fictional universe (or ‘verse, as the characters are prone to say) in which it existed, and also wrapped the storyline up.  By the end credits, you are delighted, moved, sore from laughing and thoroughly entertained.

If you have never seen these characters onscreen, start with the DVD set of Firefly, then go on to watch Serenity.  If you saw either the film or the show, but not the other, see that, too.  Television and movies do not reach this level often, and it’s terrible to let it pass you by when it does.

Irish Soul Stars???

April 1, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Who thinks of this stuff?  “I know!  Let’s do a film about a garage band from Ireland who sings Motown soul!”  This has to be one of the most ridiculous premises for a motion picture in the history of cinematography.  Even the idea that audiences would pay to see it is beyond me.

April Fool!

Yes, the premise is ludicrous.  Still, the 1991 Alan Parker film The Commitments shocked and amazed me when I first saw it.  I had only heard of it when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both raved about it on their television review show.  My face sort of contorted while watching the clips.  I couldn’t believe that the two respected critics found something interesting in this out-of-left-field story.

Then I saw it.

This ragtag band was actually cast by auditioning singers before they were allowed to read for the parts.  With only two exceptions (who do not have lead vocals in the finished film), the performers were accomplished singers, and wow! can they sing!  If you’re not familiar with the Irish brogue/accent, you might have to put your DVD English subtitles on to follow it, but once these folks open their mouths to sing, no interpretations will be necessary, trust me.

Andrew Strong came along into the studio when his father was asked to audition for the film.  When the then-16-year-old was given a chance to sing, a star was born.  Not necessarily the most attractive of movie stars, Strong’s voice is loaded with acid and passion.  The fictional group’s manager announces that they will be performing soul music, and what a great choice for this boy’s (now man’s) voice!  Maria Doyle Kennedy (later of HBO’s The Tudors) was the only member to be cast who was actually a professional singer prior to the film.  She does rather breathy and affecting versions of songs in the Aretha Franklin range (and at least one song of hers) throughout the film.  Though these two warrant spotlights, the entire crew are worthy of credit as singers, background or otherwise.

The film itself (with the accent disclaimer) is loaded with story and scenery and humor.  It is a rare combination of great film and great music.  If you watch the movie out of sheer curiosity, odds are you will be inspired to purchase the soundtrack.  Yet, even if the music was removed, the script and performances alone would make a fine film.  The songs are just gravy . . . and rich gravy, at that!

All April Fool’s gags aside, if you haven’t seen The Commitments, and you love music, see it!  If you love Ireland or accents or humor, see it.  In fact, just see it, and you’ll find something to love.

Elemental Titles: No Help Whatsoever

January 21, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

It’s only a little bit better than entitling a movie A Movie.

Regardless of dynamic scripting, phenomenal casting, cinematic triumph, box office returns or critical acclaim, at some point in a film’s evolution, a title is chosen.  Film titles can be funny, deep, symbolic, simple, long, short, or cryptic.  Each of these works in its own way.  What a title should never be, in terms of assisting an audience in choosing films to attend, is nondescript.

Imagine there are no such things as movie trailers or television commercials; that the only tool you had in order to choose a film was the title itself.  What would you suppose Ben Affleck’s recent release The Town was about?  The laying out and construction of a city?  The banding together of a town’s citizens to defend it against outsiders or aliens or a cholera epidemic?  You most likely would not imagine that it was about a small band of bank robbers.  The reason you probably wouldn’t guess this is because the title says absolutely nothing about the actual plot.  In fact, unless you know where Ben Affleck’s films are usually set, which is Boston, you wouldn’t even know which “the town” the title was talking about!  Some years ago, a film won high praise and numerous awards for its recounting of an AIDS victim’s treatment by society, but in the process, the film also smeared the reputation of a city for no good reason.  The film Philadelphia was not about The City of Brotherly Love, and certainly not about how Philadelphia doesn’t care about AIDS patients.  It was about a man who happened to live and work in Philadelphia.  There was no reason to bring the entire town into a storyline that had nothing relevant whatsoever to do with the physical setting of the story.

Compared to The Town, however, at least it can be said that Philadelphia was a bit more specific.

Similarly, naming a film after its main character is not much help.  Unless the character is real (Gandhi) or well-known (Tom Sawyer), his or her name up in lights is not going to tell the public much at all.  Who in the world is Jerry Maguire, and why would I want to see a movie about him?  Even the publicity photos of that project – a side shot of Tom Cruise laughing – was no help.  It was not a biographical film, or even a fictionally biographical film.  It was about a short time in a character’s life.  His name was not significant to the plot, nor did it help promote the movie.  One recent film, which was about a man’s entire life, from bizarre beginning to bizarre end, could have gotten away with being called simply Benjamin Button, but the well-renowned F. Scott Fitzgerald had the imagination to title his short story– and the film’s source – something more descriptive and intriguing: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

I never really warmed up to the title of television’s L.A. Law, either.  Sure, it was about a law firm in The City of Angels, but the title made it seem like it was about the citywide legal system, not a specific firm and its staff.  A few decades later, creator David Kelley attempted the same trick with Boston Legal, with the same results.  Great show, misleading name.  Kelley, in fact, could well be the king of simplistic place/people titles, with Ally McBeal, Lake Placid, Doogie Howser, M.D., and Mystery, Alaska in his portfolio.  The TV shows Ally and Doogie at least existed within a medium that traditionally names shows after characters, and there, it is acceptable, because you can center an entire series around a character that will eventually (the creators hope!) become familiar to the public by name.  A one-shot story on the big screen, however, is not really the place for titles like Jim Smith, Barbara Hoover or Mike.  I just made these titles up, but if you think I’m exaggerating, recall Kevin Kline’s project entitled Dave.  Even adding one relevant word to that title – like President Dave – would have helped draw people in.

It’s not wrong or bad to name stories after places or characters, but it should be common sense to make sure the title element is really relevant to the plot, and the title should be framed in such a way that describes and promotes the project, or at least stirs curiosity.

This is why “Rubber Chicken Soup” is not called “Blog.”

Unwatchable! (a.k.a., Throw ME From The Train . . . Please!)

December 17, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

I was shocked from the moment I first saw the trailer months ago.  Denzel Washington, the king of versatile acting and audience appeal and successful acting careers, and Chris Pine, fresh from his hugely popular turn as the new Capt. James T. Kirk in Star Trek, were both acting together in a . . . disaster movie?

Strike one.

They were either bribed with tremendous millions of dollars, or they had nothing better to do, or they acted in the film for charity.  There couldn’t possibly have been enough appeal in this script to bring in the big guns.  This is a straight-to-video script starring Dolph Lundgren and Norm McDonald, if I ever witnessed one!  This piece of crud is laced with every conceivable disaster movie cliché and overused line known to Man, and that’s the fun part about it!

Strike two.

The story is based on actual events.  This means that there is a 95.8% chance (you’ll just have to trust me on that!) that everything is going to end up hunky-dory at the end, which takes any notion of surprising the audience completely out of the equation.

Strike three.  You’re out (cold, asleep!).

As a fan of both main actors, and also of female lead Rosario Dawson, I’d love to say that there is something redeeming in this flick.  Sadly, not one thing is worth seeing or hearing.  There are no surprises in any scene.  The writing is straight out of Cliché Film School.  The end is so schlocky, I guessed the fate of each character immediately before each paragraph appeared on the screen next to his or her face, and was not one degree off absolutely correct on any of them.

An engineerless train plummeting toward a populated town makes for an exciting three-minute news story, but unless you actually have something original or shocking to put into a script, it makes a godawful film plot.  I would say that this film was “derailed” or “a train wreck,” but that would be as lame as the film itself . . . so I won’t.  Unlike the creators and participants of Unstoppable, I have a little pride.

Bonding With Garrett

November 4, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

As my middle son grew from infancy to school age, there were some significant moments in our relationship.  To prove that Garrett is just as naturally goofy as his dad, I’ll tell you that the first sign of our unique connection all started in his butt.

Yes, his butt.

Garrett’s toddling derriere apparently could sense my presence, and it would seek me out, seemingly without his head’s or eyes’ knowledge!  I was seriously amazed by this.  I would come into a room where Garrett would be extremely busy, either standing in the middle of the living room staring at something on the TV, or concentrating on a toy, and I’d sit.  I loved watching my son just be himself, and I would quietly take a seat to be his audience.  No matter how silent I was, as soon as my long legs were folded up on the carpet to form a lap “chair,” Garrett would gravitate . . . backwards! . . . and plop his diaper-wrapped rear end down on his dad’s legs, all while continuing his activity.

I was amazed, I was stumped, and I was very, very flattered.  I never once witnessed this maneuver with another member of the family, nor did he ever turn to see who was behind him.  It got to the point where I would deliberately sneak into the room and stealthily come to rest behind his peripheral vision, but he was never fooled.  Garrett’s behind knew when Dad’s lap was present and available.  His radar never failed, indoors or outdoors.  Once, I came outside to find him playing in one part of the covered patio, and a birthday present I had given him months before still sitting in the box in another part of the patio.  I commenced to pull out the parts and tools, and to put together the rider toy, when suddenly, the instruction sheet was knocked aside by Garrett’s tushy.  Plop! He happily continued on with his activity, not minding at all that I now had to work around him . . . and neither did I!

This little skill started to fade around three years of age, and by the time Garrett was almost five, his new little brother had taken to lap sitting . . . but never quite “backed into” the job as Garrett had!

Around age two, Garrett became a television hog (which I take partial blame for!).  In any room with a TV screen, Garrett would zip right over, and turn the silent box on.  One particular afternoon, I found myself repeating and re-repeating the phrases “No, Garrett,” “No,” and “No TV, Garrett.”  Growing weary of the repetitive repetition, and without a better idea, I simply spouted nonsense at the child . . . which sounded to me rather like amateur Japanese!  The first time I did this, my child stopped his procession to the TV immediately, turned to me curiously, and laughed uproariously!

Now, Dad had started a game, which would last about a year.  Garrett no longer sped to the television screen, ignorant of any present parent, in order to turn it on.  No, sir!  Now, my son would start slowly toward the box, and turn his head over his shoulder with a wide smile to make sure I caught him.  It was no longer the television noise he was after; it was the weird noise coming from Dad’s mouth!  I always tried to make it a unique form of gibberish each time.  I just loved the rapid-fire giggle reaction!

Around Garrett’s third birthday, he and I went out for a father-son afternoon.  After lunch and a romp through the mall, the birthday boy announced that he wanted to go to a movie.  I foresaw this as problematic, since his eyes were already starting to droop.  The young man would not be dissuaded, however, so off to the theatre we went.  Garrett wanted to see a noisy, silly cartoon, which I would have happily taken him to see, had I not foreseen that he would soon be unconscious and Dad alone would be left to “enjoy” the animated hijinks.  I therefore sent my son to the window, and had him ask for two tickets to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.  Sure enough, after two “Who is that guy?” questions and five minutes of film, my child was out cold, with both of his arms snaked around my left arm.

I enjoyed the dramatic tale of childhood friends who experience tragedy, then reunite as adults, only to have one of their children experience another tragedy.  Still a young father, I was emotionally affected by Sean Penn’s paternal anguish in the film.  Not the macho type, but not wanting to look silly, I fought the tears as Penn cried over his daughter.  Just then, shortly before the end credits rolled, my son Garrett awoke, crawled up into my lap, wrapped his arms around my neck, and said, “I love you, Daddy.”

Commence waterworks.  Forgetaboutit!

I’m happy and proud to say that even as he is about to turn eleven, Garrett still brightens when he sees me.  I know girls, pals and cars will soon distract him from thinking his dad’s “cool,” as happens with all boys-into-men, but I do have these snapshots of our private times together, when it was just me and Garrett and our love for each other.

Thank you, God!


October 27, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

The phrase has been popular for decades, becoming known by only its initials and even spawning a 1978 disco-themed film.

“Thank God It’s Friday!”

Nine-to-fivers cheer this phrase from Friday morning until it’s time to punch out.  They spend Monday through Thursday waiting for Friday.  It’s far and away their favorite day of the week.

But why?

As with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the workforce at large must awake to a rude alarm, shower and dress while half-asleep, wrestle with rush-hour traffic both to and from work, stare at the clock, deal with co-workers and managers and clients, and generally wish they were somewhere else doing something else.  So how is Friday different from its four preceding days in any given week?

True, at the end of the day on Friday, the official weekend begins.  True, most folks do not have to set an alarm for the next morning, and can therefore plan on staying up later doing something fun on Friday night.  These are all wonderful qualities to have in a day of the week.

But now, let’s talk about Friday’s neighbor Saturday.  On Saturdays, you can generally do most anything you could do on Fridays, plus there is typically no alarm, no rush hour, no work, no bosses, and no punch clock.  There are usually eight more Saturday hours to yourself and your own personal ventures than there are Friday hours.  During the same hours of the day you would be at your Friday work post, you can be in a Saturday mall, park, movie theatre, beach, ski slope, . . . anywhere but punching a clock!

I nominate “T.G.I.S.” for the new happy-dance catchphrase.  In fact, it’s about time another film was made . . . and we won’t have to suffer a disco soundtrack, either!

Ten Chilean Miner Crisis Movie Titles

October 26, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

Recently, miners were trapped underground in Chile for 69 days before they could be safely removed. These are proposed titles for the inevitable film version.

10.) Miner Complications

9.) Forecast: Chile, With A Chance Of Cave-In

8.) Dancing In The Dark

7.) Millions For Chileans: The Lawsuit

6.) How To Loaf On The Job For 10 Weeks

5.) El Overtimo Extremo

4.) I.T.: The Intraterrestrials

3.) 69 Days In The Hole

2.) For Spanish, Press “Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh!”


1.) Thank God It’s October

The Perfect Movie

September 10, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

In 1989, I saw something as rare as a five-leaf clover: a flawless movie!

My reactions to films are always character-driven: Do I care about these people, what they want, what they go through, and what they think and feel?  Whether the film is a comedy, mystery, drama or science fiction, if the characters are of no concern to me, the film will end up the same way.

Steven Spielberg translated one of his favorite boyhood movies into a modern piece just before I graduated from college.  The World War II drama A Guy Named Joe, starring Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Ward Bond and Irene Dunne (a.k.a. a “stellar” cast, in my view!), is the tale of a bomber pilot, killed in action, who returns to Earth as the angelic guide to another pilot.  Spielberg transferred the tale to a Northwest forest firefighting post, peopled by pilots who drop fire retardant on the trees to assist the ground firefighters, and called it Always.  I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy a movie more than this treasure!

As in the original film, the main character Pete Sandich (now in the guise of personable Richard Dreyfuss) sacrifices himself to save the life of another, and returns to guide another pilot . . . only to find that the pilot has met and is falling in love with the girl he left behind!  Spielberg kept all the original character names, down to the oddly charming female lead of “Durinda Durston,” and in my opinion, finds the perfect cast to express humor, drama and melodrama: along with Dreyfuss’ Pete, Durinda becomes Holly Hunter (who charmed me in Broadcast News, but became an ideal girl in my eyes with this role, full of fire and femininity, anger and sadness, with a generous dose of humor), and Al Yackey becomes the impossible-to-dislike John Goodman.

The first half-hour is hysterical, showing the great friendship among the three leads, joking and practical joking their way through a rough and stressful career choice.  After Pete saves Al from certain death, and pays the ultimate price for it, he visits with an angel named Hap (sublimely portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in her very last film role, for which she came out of retirement to play).  Hap sends him to inspire a young pilot, and Pete is again faced with Durinda and his unsettled love for her, while he is forced to watch his girl and his protégé fall for each other.

I was immediately impressed with the range of emotions the film inspires.  Great comedies rarely have unawkward drama in them, and great dramas usually include only sparing humor as comic relief, if at all.  Here, I found a film that could make you cry from laughing, then cry just as much from sorrow.  I can’t think of a single actor or actress – even in the tiniest of appearances – that does not do an amazing job in Always.  The outright fun of the cinematic friends reminded me very much of myself and my own closest friends, and the great times we’ve had.  Having survived more than my share of mourning in my days, I also appreciate the emotions that the film successfully stirs, and the eventual settling of the surviving characters.

In short, if you’ve never seen Always, or it’s been many years since you have, I give it my highest recommendation possible.  I don’t know if anyone will have the same energetic reaction I had, but it’s a safe bet that in some way, you will be entertained by this rare treasure!

Shakespeare 2.0

August 27, 2010

by Thomas M. Pender

Say the name Shakespeare to most teenagers, and they will turn up their noses and make some sort of groaning sound.  To them, the writer is just some long-dead guy with a Gallagher haircut who wrote words that don’t make sense.  Putting the words in front of them won’t help much.  In fact, they’ll sarcastically read a bit out loud to prove that the words don’t make sense.

But put Leonardo DiCaprio in a convertible with an automatic weapon and a Hawaiian shirt, and even the biggest men on campus will cheer for the romantic Romeo!

I remember seeing the trailer for director Baz Luhrman’s 1996 accomplishment William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.  I was immediately excited about this experiment.  I knew what it was trying to accomplish, and I thought it was brilliant: Hide Shakespeare behind a thin veil of explosions and car chases, and the teens will come out.  Sadly, the film did not last long in the theatres, but I saw it immediately after it was released.  The music, the cast, the acting, and the concept were all outstanding!  John Leguizamo’s Tybalt and Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio, though they were probably the shortest of the main character roles, stunned me with the characters’ power and the actors’ performances.

One year earlier, I had been drawn in by another trailer.  English stage actor Ian McKellan (now widely known for his later performances as Gandalf in the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy) presented the tale of the deformed and diabolical English king Richard III as a Hitler-esque Fascist dictator, bringing England to its knees under a Nazilike boot heel.  The fascinating thing is that he does this without changing a word of the original text!  As the well-known line “A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!” is yelled by Richard from a stuck jeep on a modern battlefield, we understand his frustration through the age-old words.  Here again, the more familiar images of modern warfare help to illustrate the unchanged words.

In 2000, Ethan Hawke starred as the tortured Dane in Hamlet.  Here, Elsinore is an office skyscraper rather than a castle, his deceased father was the CEO of the family corporation rather than the king of a country, and the brooding Hamlet carries a camcorder around instead of a dagger.  The shocking performance here was delivered by comic actor and Saturday Night Live alum Bill Murray as the completely serious Polonius.  I kept expecting him to wink at the camera, or stick in some sly reference to one of his SNL characters, but he never left the character, and I was highly impressed.  Over the years, I’ve learned that comedians can give the most spectacular dramatic performances.  In fact, I don’t care for Robin Williams’ comedies much at all, but I wouldn’t miss a drama with his name on it!  (In fact, Williams played a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s updated Hamlet!)  Murray drives the point home here.

Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, PA. is a bit different.  The 2001 release takes the tragedy of MacBeth into the 21st Century, but not as a tale of royalty and war.  In a completely rewritten, modern language script, it depicts the cutthroat world of . . . fast food!  Morrisette wrote it as a rebellion against the Shakespearean play, which had bored him in school.  Ironically, he ended up clarifying the tale for younger viewers!

Each and every title mentioned here is recommended for anyone who loves or fears Shakespeare.  I can practically guarantee you will enjoy the updated tales, and you will certainly understand them more than you ever did with the imageries.  One tip: I found it to be very helpful to watch these DVDs with the English subtitles on.  With the combination of the modernized visuals and the written words, you will have a much easier time of swimming through the outdated verbage to get to the point and the plot.

Just give one a try, and I’d just bet you end up enjoying Shakespeare!