Frank's Faves: Good movies with bad titles

Frank's Faves: Good movies with bad titles

"It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything." — Oscar Wilde

Just as ideas for faves can be inspired by the oddest of occurrences, they can also come about in the unlikeliest of places.

This one came to me on the softball fields at Dodds Park a couple weekends ago — though not entirely out of left field, so to speak, since my appearance in the dugout before a game or practice often stimulates my teammates to limber up their cerebral muscles by serving up unsolicited though not unwelcome suggestions for future faves.

As this is a family newspaper, I cannot repeat all of the suggestions I have fielded under such circumstances, but this particular time a couple weekends ago provided me with a doozy.

My old pal and senior team captain, Dan Hughes, had brought along an idea for a column (which I will keep to myself for the moment, since I plan to use it another time), but that led him to recall a time when he took his movie-hating dad against his wishes to go see a film, grumbling and complaining all the way, only to hear him raving about it later and recommending it to some friends.

The movie was "Dave" (1993), starring Kevin Kline, which Dan described to those listening as "a great movie with a stupid title."

"Wouldn't that be a cool idea for a faves list?" chimed in my 17-year-old granddaughter Victoria, who had fortuitously accompanied me to softball practice. "Great movies with stupid titles."

Right she was. And there you have it: Just like that, another Frank's Faves is born.

Of course, as usual, the idea, good as it is, wasn't as easy as I originally imagined. Oh, it's not the "stupid title" part that presents the challenge. Lord knows there have been plenty of those. In fact, it's harder not to think of bad movies with bad titles — "Gigli" (2003), "Freddie Got Fingered" (2001) and my dad's all-time least-favorite, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) all leap to mind with scary ease. But none of these stinkers can hardly be called "faves" by any stretch of the imagination.

This challenge is in thinking of a movie that was so much better than its name that you actually remember it in spite of its terrible title. The problem is that a movie that fails to imprint its title on your memory is likely to be misfiled in your brain banks, no matter how good a scene or a line or a performance in it may be.

I won't include "Dave" in my list, even though it is a personal fave, as I'm not sure I agree that a common name makes a poor movie title (it seems to have worked out OK for James Stewart in "Harvey" and Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky," to name just a couple); nor will I include Dan's actual nomination to this list — Dustin Hoffman in "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971) — but that's only because I haven't seen it for myself yet. It sounds, uh, great ...

I will, however, give you a handful that did come to mind, movies that stand out only because I nearly missed them and would have regretted that, as their titles just about dulled me out of ever seeing them at all. So before I forget them in spite of myself, here they are:

MY FIVE FAVORITE GOOD MOVIES WITH BAD TITLES

— "John Carter" (2012). For a big-budget sci-fi fantasy actioner about a Civil War-era warrior’s journey across the alien plains of Mars, Disney gave this one an undeniable dud of a title. Small wonder it crashed and burned at the box office, a fate it honestly did not deserve. In fact, this epic adventure based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story (which, by the way, was named “John Carter of Mars”; significantly more interesting) should have been a big deal, as its release marked the 100th anniversary of its debut as a magazine serial. It’s well-acted and intelligently written, and features excellent CGI effects, an engaging story and a thought-provoking ending. And ... it’s named for its little-known main character. Yup. Listen to the crickets chirp ...

— "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007). Sure, we all know how things turned out for the Wild West outlaw, but it does little for a film's chances to broadcast the entire plot and the ending right there on the theater marquee. Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard are actually quite good as the James brothers, as are Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell as the Fords. You just couldn't have given it a worse title if you'd called it "Leave the Cock-Eyed Picture on the Wall Be, Jess."

— "We Bought a Zoo" (2011). This family comedy-drama's actually got a lot going for it. For starters, it's based on a true story, it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, and it stars two of the most likable, bankable American film stars today, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johnansson. Plus all those adorable animals, of course. It's only mistake is keeping the book's title — which, while true enough, remains a bit of a gloat, something Richie Rich might say to his pals and that few movie-going families out there are likely to identify with. Might as well retitle it, "We're Better Off Than You."

— "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (2003). The movie, adapted from three novels in author Patrick O'Brian's nautical historical series, is a wondrously filmed, genuinely thrilling sea actioner set amid the Napoleonic Wars, with a well-scripted story at its core about the friendship between a brash Royal Navy captain (Russell Crowe) and his scholarly ship's surgeon (Paul Bettany). And yet, if you seek out this movie, it's only because you already know what it's about. There's really nothing in that ho-hum, nine-word title that sells it as worth your time. Sure, the name came from the books and actually reflects the military title of its protagonist, but it does zip to hook me as a viewer, even after having seen and enjoyed the flick. And really, why does it need the extended, colon format? There aren't any other "Master and Commander" movies. The first three words should suffice!

— "Cloverfield" (2008). I'm not a fan of the "found footage" film genre, but this one is undoubtedly my fave out of that limited field. It offers a refreshing new spin on the Monster That Ate New York brand of sci-fi horror thriller, but like the others on this list, its success owes absolutely nothing to its title. It's not the name of the monster or where it comes from or where it attacks. It doesn't describe it or even remotely refer to it. It's simply a label with no relevance to the movie's plot aside from a title card that identifies it as the name of the government case it was filed under. Brilliant. Let's name a whole film franchise after it!

BONUS FIVE: Good Movies With Bad Titles I Have Yet to See (Or So I'm Told)

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992); "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994); "I Heart Huckabees" (2004); "The Constant Gardener" (2005); and "Gone Baby Gone" (2007).

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