Tom Terrific

Jay Bevenour

It was a fine curiosity on a late and lazy, coffee-sipping Saturday morning. Looking over the usually surprise-free Sun-Sentinel weekend entertainment rag, Showtime, I happened upon the "Family Filmgoer" column by syndicated Washington Post critic Jane Horwitz. Her first review in this, the April 5 issue, was of Clockstoppers, a sci-fi children's movie. "It's a drab, dull, cheap-looking film that feels like an hourlong TV special padded to feature length," Horwitz opined.

On the same page, there happened to be an ad for the drab, dull movie in question, complete with blurbs that Paramount had dredged up to tout it. The most glowing one read: "way-cool special effects ... the film is that rarity, a show not only suitable for all ages but able to entertain them ... 'Clockstoppers' will fulfill your wildest fantasies about being a different kind of time traveler."

Yhew. Obviously the work of one of those Hollywood junket-mongers. Then I looked at the name beneath it: "Tom Sander, South Florida Sun-Sentinel."

Since the only Sentinel film critic I knew was Todd Anthony (one of the better film critics in Florida), I imagined that Sander might be a new David Manning. Manning, you might recall, routinely raved about dogs like The Animal and A Knight's Tale. Raved, that is, until a Newsweek reporter discovered that Manning didn't exist. Publicists for Sony Pictures had dreamed him up to help peddle their box-office-challenged fodder.

Sander, however, was real. A Web search showed that he isn't a very prolific reviewer, though; he does just a few a month. And as I read them, it became apparent that the Clockstoppers' review wasn't an anomaly. The man adores some bad movies. But it's not what Sander likes that is so objectionable; it's how he likes it. Hyperbole isn't just an occasional weapon in his arsenal, it's his front-line standard. Sander never met a Hollywood manipulation he didn't like. He makes David Manning look like David Denby.

And he is an occasional plagiarist. Only he doesn't copy others -- Sander is, tragically, Sander's own victim. Of the recent lukewarm fantasy The Princess Diaries, he promised that you would overlook the film's shortcomings since you'll be "too busy smiling, laughing, cheering, and crying with joy as you watch a really nice princess-in-training try for the crown, the castle, the kingdom and Prince Charming." He ends the review with this two-sentence paragraph: "Enjoy the fairy tale. Imagine it coming true."

The beginning of that gush sounds a lot like what he said about The Rookie, a movie that was critically acclaimed. Sander promises that in the Dennis Quaid baseball film, "you will find plenty to smile about, cheer about and cry tears of joy."

Echo... echo.

He also notes that audience members at the sneak preview of The Rookie came "to their feet applauding." They're a mainstay of Sander's reviews, these audience members who are so emotional that they should be slipped Valium in their Milk Duds. One movie, he promises, "will produce the kind of oohs, wows, and applause that enthralled... viewers at a recent sneak preview." Another film "drew cheers and sustained applause from female viewers at a recent sneak preview." Yet another "recent sneak preview left many kids, and grown-ups, bawling their eyes out." And another came with a "satisfying climax which had a recent sneak preview audience cheering and applauding."

My God, does Sander's unrestrained celluloidal joy rub off on these people, or is he just so wildly entranced by Walt and friends that he's begun hallucinating?

The man is definitely on something, a new drug engineered by Disney, perhaps, one that happily breaks down those stubborn defenses against old Hollywood gimmicks. Of the goofy and ill-fated Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicle called Snow Dogs, Sander wrote: "This is a fine example of old-fashioned Disney movie-making magic at its best."

Even if the movie were good, you couldn't help but choke on that line. But Snow Dogs was a barker. The Washington Post called it "phoned-in, business as usual." The San Francisco Examiner raved: "Instantly forgettable." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer yakked that it "is as innocuous as it is flavorless." And the New York Times said it was "Disney's latest update of the lame live-action B comedies that have been among the studio's more dubious contributions to American pop culture."

Sander called The Musketeer, a badly lighted and almost universally reviled swashbuckler, "entertainment that will get your adrenaline pumping, put a smile on your face and make you long for a time when a sword was more natural to carry than a cell phone." Words other established reviewers used to describe the same film included "lazy," "miserable," "pedestrian," "appalling," and "grotesque." Stephen Holden, of the New York Times, deemed it "visual coleslaw."

Oddly, Sander seems to like tasteless teenage movies as much as he does poorly made family flicks. Of the juvenile Jerry O'Connell stink bomb Tomcats, Sander wrote that he didn't necessarily like all the gratuitous nudity but added, "I have to admit I laughed so hard my sides literally ached and I had a coughing fit." My favorite line from the dozens of critics who skinned Tomcats came from Roger Ebert, who called it "a comedy positioned outside the normal range of human response."

Sander also has a soft spot for poorly constructed thrillers. He beamed about the "good share of suspense, thrills, and psychological goose bumps" in Along Came a Spider, which also was generally hated by the pros. New Times' Robert Wilonsky called the movie "tedious and insipid," and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was inspired to write, "Hollywood has screwed up again, big time."

Crappy horror flicks also find a willing victim in Sander. For the video game-inspired gorefest Resident Evil, he supplied this sappy slogan: "It's spooky, suspenseful, and jump-out-of-your seat scary." The Miami Herald had a different take: "such a bad movie that its luckiest viewers will be seated next to one of those ignorant pinheads who talk throughout the show." Orlando Sentinel critic Jay Boyar predicted that Resident Evil would "most likely turn out to be the most repellent movie of 2002."

Don't get me wrong. Sander is no junket whore; the man just loves that moviemaking magic and those way-cool special effects. More power to him. I had heard from colleagues that he was a capital fellow, and a phone conversation confirmed it. Easygoing and friendly, he informed me that I wasn't alone in my criticisms of his criticism; several readers had already told him as much. "I give an emotional response to movies," he says without apology. "I'm not trying to be literary. I'm like Steven Spielberg... I just love to go to the movies. When the lights go down, I'm like a little kid. Scare me, make me laugh, make me cry, entertain me; I want to have a good time."

The problem is that his teary-eyed and cheerful blurbs are conning a lot of cerebral folk into wasting 90 minutes of their lives that they, unlike the different kind of time travelers in Clockstoppers, can't get back. "I'm afraid I have become something of an advertising shill," he admits.

OK, so now we've met Tom Sander. But who is he?

Sander is a veteran Sun-Sentinel editorial writer who pens movie reviews as a hobby. The implications give rise to psychological goose bumps. He is a major component of the Sentinel brain trust that endorses political candidates and analyzes public policy. The very notion is enough to make one's sides ache and cause a coughing fit.

To be fair, a scan of his occasional columns shows that he's a much better political writer than he is a movie critic. But still, some of the headlines accompanying Sander's recent editorial offerings make you wonder. Take the biting "Winning Ways Start with Citizen Involvement" -- please. Or the sardonic and provocative "Course Helps People Shift to Better Diet, Exercise More and Reduce Stress." Now it makes a little more sense to me why the Sentinel usually supports entrenched, sold-out incumbents (remember how Scott Cowan used to make us cry tears of joy?) and runs editorials that make us rise from our seats and toss the newspaper in the wastebasket.

But take heart: As Sander might say, we can still dream of a local newspaper full of old-fashioned, first-rate journalistic magic. We can still pretend that our local newspaper publishes deep-digging, hard-hitting editorials and expertly wrought movie reviews.

Enjoy the fairy tale. Imagine it coming true.

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