Learn to turn thumbs down on a bad movie before it's too late


You want to go to the movies. So you turn to the newspaper, where movie ads trumpet the current films. The "Wyatt Earp" ad proclaims, "Not bad, but you'll probably wish you'd waited for video." "I Love Trouble" brags, "Terrible! Don't waste your money!" And the ads for "Baby's Day Out" suggest, "What, are you kidding? Wash your hair instead!"

OK, so the idea of newspaper ads that actually help you decide what to see is a fantasy. But there are ways to sniff out stinkers before you find yourself seven bucks and two hours poorer. No single warning sign is foolproof, but if you find a movie with two or three red flags, it's likely you've got a bad movie on your hands.

Beware the blurbmeisters

The studios would like to quote the top critics at the most prestigious papers and magazines -- the New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, Newsweek -- in their movie ads. But if they can't find a prestigious enthusiastic quote, they turn to a group of "critics" who subscribe to the "if you can't say something nice about a movie say something nice anyway" brand of criticism. I have no idea who Susan "A Masterpiece" Granger, Jeff "Fantastic" Craig or Paul "Blockbuster" Wunder are, but they've liked all the worst movies of the past year (including "My Father, the Hero," "Clean Slate" and "Born Yesterday"). Be skeptical of their quotes -- they never met a movie they didn't want to rave about in large type.

What's so wonderful?

Just as suspicious are those movie ads filled with one-word comments about the movie: "Wonderful," says Newsweek. "Exhilarating," says the Los Angeles Times.

"I wonder what the whole quote was?" you should be saying. Because these one-word or short-phrase quotes are often taken out of context. Last year, "Free Willy" ads included Richard Corliss' "Feel-good sleeper!" comment but neglected to mention that Mr. Corliss also wrote that it "makes the phrase 'feel-good' sound like a command from the industry's P.C. Patrol." The widely thrashed "Heaven and Earth" used the same kind of ad campaign.

One-word quotes aren't always suspect -- "Widows' Peak" is using one-word quotes that accurately reflect the tone of the reviews they were yanked from. Still, if a reviewer writes, "'Wolf' is cruddy, but it contains an enchanting performance by Michelle Pfeiffer," you know the movie ad will say "Enchanting!" not "Cruddy!"

Learn to read the credits

They're the smallest part of the ad and probably the most important. In general, the more complicated the credits, the more birthing pains the movie has experienced. If the ad lists six producers and four writers (as did last year's "Made in America"), it could mean trouble.

Another red flag: How many editors are listed? More than one usually points to a rush job like "The Last Action Hero," which was being hastily assembled right up to the moment of its release. Would a more relaxed editing schedule have made it a better movie? Probably not -- its problems began much earlier. (Hey! How 'bout those four writers and five producers?) But, by and large, the best movies have the least-cluttered credits.

The telltale ampersand

An ampersand (&) means "and," right? Wrong. If two people work together to write a movie, it's indicated by an ampersand (such as the writing team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel). If someone else rewrites the script, his credit is indicated with an "and" instead of an ampersand (so the credits for "City Slickers II" read "Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Billy Crystal"). A complicated writing history isn't necessarily a problem (the excellent "Tootsie" had many writers), but bad movies almost always start with bad scripts, and multiple writers are the most reliable sign of script trouble (as in this year's "Bad Girls," badly scripted by a quintet of writers).

Who is Alan Smithee?

He's the fake name used when directors demand their name be removed from a project. Directors do not disown good movies, so Alan Smithee's name in the credits is a virtual Bad Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval.

Read interviews carefully

Almost none of the interviews Julia Roberts gave to promote "I Love Trouble" talked much about the movie. Here's why: Writers who interview stars have always seen at least a rough version of the current movie. If they think it's bad, they may choose to do a "body of work" interview with the star, which talks about her other movies or focuses more on her personal life.

Newspaper and magazine profiles are likely to do a certain amount of that anyway, but if a star's current project is barely or never mentioned, it may mean the writer or the star wasn't anxious to talk about it. (This brings up the Schwarzenegger Corollary: Arnold says the new movie he's in is his best movie.

Spotting a bad movie with a good trailer is tougher. "Toys" is one of the worst movies in years, but its trailer -- which showed Robin Williams doing a stand-up act in the middle of a field of wheat, instead of using clips from the movie -- was a knockout. People who were suckered into the movie by that great trailer probably all thought the same thing: "So that's why they didn't use any funny clips from the movie?" There weren't any.

Other potential signs of trouble: a trailer that doesn't make clear what the movie's about (like this year's "My Father the Hero" trailer, which obscured the nature of the relationship between its stars, or "Heaven and Earth," which showed gorgeous images of rice paddies instead of getting into the movie's convoluted mess of a plot). Or a trailer, especially for a comedy, which includes a dizzying series of quick clips, rather than the more extended scenes that would better convey a sense of the movie (like "Clean Slate," in which both of the funny parts were in the trailer).

You may also begin to recognize other kinds of trailer high jinks -- overly elaborate graphics used to disguise a dull movie, for instance, or peppy music trying to convince you the movie is peppy. It's a technique straight out of Cole Porter: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

Sometimes it's easy to spot this technique. A couple of years ago, "Smooth Talk" paired adorable Dolly Parton and weirdo James Woods in an unconvincing love story. In the movie, every time you saw Mr. Woods go for a kiss, it looked is if he were fixing to take a bite out of Dolly. So the people who made the trailer simply forgot about Mr. Woods. Any time a movie's star is MIA from the trailer, there's a problem.

Word of mouth

It might be a friend or a critic, and you don't necessarily need to agree with them. A friend of mine disliked both "Reality Bites" and "The Ref," two movies I liked. We agree on lots of other movies, but now I have an idea of a type of comedy I like that she doesn't. I won't recommend those movies to her anymore.

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