How to Avoid Bad Movies

Maui Time | January 25, 2008
Nobody likes the feeling of spending hard-earned cash on a movie only to regret every second spent sitting through a worthless piece of tripe that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. There are some clues you can look for to help limit your exposure to crappy films. While this condensed list won't insure that you never spend another two hours in a darkened cinema bored to tears, it does represent some shortcuts that I use as a critic in deciding which movies to avoid.

Pay attention to ratings and running times. In recent years, this has become a great shorthand way of sizing up action, thriller and horror movies. There aren't too many modern winners from any of these genres that don't have an R rating. So if a movie like Cloverfield seems at first glance like something you want to see, consider its PG-13 rating first. There's an automatic cap on how much suspense and payoff this neutered rating will deliver. Add to that the film's 84-minute running time, and it's a fair bet that this little teen-peddled flick won't mean much to a cinephile that's been around the cinema block.

Adopt a favorite critic. I love to read reviews by Roger Ebert because he has an effortless style, and I've read enough of his reviews to know how to interpret them against my own tastes. It's advantageous to have a critic that you enjoy reading and whose insights can help you get more out of specific films. Even if you end up hating a movie that your favorite critic supported, you can have an interesting internal dialogue during the experience.

January and February suck. The movies opening in wide release on February 1st give a microcosmic glimpse into what we're talking about. Disney is opening their diabolically manufactured Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. New Line Cinema is trotting out an ill-timed romantic comedy that looks like a made-for-TV show that you might not return to after visiting your kitchen for a break. Lionsgate lets loose with yet another D-list Jessica Alba thriller (The Eye) while Paramount puts up Strange Wilderness, a comedy with Steve Zahn as an animal enthusiast. It's a batch of movies you could skip with no regrets. None of these dandy options were press screened more than a week outside of their release, if at all. That sends up a red flag about a studio's lack of confidence in the film's ability to impress critics.

Most audiences are instinctively aware of the movie drought that occur in the first two months of the year when studios are still reaping the rewards of their Oscar-promoted Christmastime fare. This is a period when it behooves audiences to check out the overhyped movies that you'll be sorry you missed when they win Oscars.

Consider the source. Films by first time directors automatically draw a stern eye. More often than not, movies from first time filmmakers wither on the vine. If it's not a debut effort that you're curious about due to positive reception from a film festival or some other notoriety, stay away.

You can also tell a lot by the studio. Keep track of which studios release the kinds of movies you like. I know that films from First Run Features, Focus Features, Kino, IFC, THINKFilm, Picturehouse, Sony Pictures Classics, and the Weinstein Company will typically pique my interest.

Don't believe the hype. Here we get into the muddy waters of what to expect when you go to see a critical darling like Atonement or There Will Be Blood. Everyone you know has told you that you absolutely have to run out and see it. But as you sit in your seat waiting for the earth to shake beneath you, you feel like there's something missing, something that everybody else got that you're not seeing. And there is. It's called first-time identification. Because your identification to the film's essence has been regurgitated to you, you're not able to see it as you would if you had walked in knowing nothing about it. The simplest way to rectify the situation is to consciously disregard everything you've heard when you approach it. Go so far as to sit in a part of the theater that you wouldn't normally occupy, and make sure that there are as few people around you as possible to enhance your sense of personal space. Make your mind a blank and let the movie wash over you on its own terms.

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back with subtitles. It's easy to be adventurous with foreign movies because you can treat part of the experience as a chance to brush up on a foreign language while getting a brief vacation to another culture. If it's a movie like Ang Lee's Lust Caution, you might even get an erotic charge for your trouble.

Study the classics. There's no substitute for visiting or revisiting the classics of world cinema, and if you're fortunate enough to a have an art house repertoire cinema near you that shows films like Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad then you’ve got an ace up your sleeve. It's no accident that great directors, like painters, constantly look at cinema masterpieces for inspiration and ideas. Seeing movies from the top 1000 films of all time will give you a greater appreciation of master filmmakers and make you more critical of dreck. Most movies are bad, but that doesn't mean you have to see them. Think before you plop down ten bucks on the next pic from M. Night Shyamalamadingdong. The time you spend watching Bergman's Wild Strawberries will make up for the time you spent watching Will Ferrell's last comedy.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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