January 09, 2004

My Baby's Daddy

There are certainly worse things in the world than this movie. And the good news about MY BABY'S DADDY is that you'll probably laugh a handful of times while watching it. If anything, this PG-13-rated urbanized variation on THREE MEN AND A BABY suffers greatest from that feeling of holding back (an R-rated version of this movie would have been a lot better). But as it stands, DADDY is a no-brainer work punctuated by a handful genuine laughs. Three guys who have grown up together (Eddie Griffin, Anthony Anderson, and "The Sopranos" Michael Imperioli) and live together each get their respectively girlfriends pregnant on the same day. Naturally, the three women each give birth on the same day too, and none of the men are prepared to have their "playerhood" taken away so abruptly. The truth is the three are certified losers holding on to childhood dreams of becoming a boxer (Anderson), a record producer (Imperioli), and an inventor (Griffin). Over the course of the film, they learn the responsibility and value of fatherhood and pursue careers more appropriate to their strengths. Along the way, we get a bevy of dirty diaper jokes, ethnic humor, and ham acting; some of this is funny, much is not. In the final third of the story, we're also introduced to Anderson's in-and-out-of-jail cousin played by rapper Method Man, who introduces some much-needed energy into the proceedings, but by then it's too late. MY BABY'S DADDY suffers most from half-hearted film making. I never got the sense that any of the actors really believed what they were saying, and none of the male leads every looked comfortable holding their babies. What's almost more disappointing is the above-average cast of supporting players and cameos from the likes of Tiny Lister, John Amos, Bai Ling, Amy Sedaris, and Scott Thompson; but none of them are given anything funny or interesting to do. But I did laugh. I have a soft spot for Griffin's humor, but not usually in tame vehicles like this (his concert film from last year was a riot). Still, some of Griffin's gritty appeal comes through and those are the times I laughed the most. Overall however, MY BABY'S DADDY--like the many loaded diapers featured throughout--is a stinker.

Posted by sprokopy at 03:00 PM

The Company

Director Robert Altman never ceases to amaze me. His films aren't always great, but you can't help but watch them intently before you come to that conclusion. His latest film, THE COMPANY, is perplexing for a couple reasons. Giving a slice of life look at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Company, the film is not exactly a documentary because there are actors playing characters among real members of the company. Chief among them is Malcolm McDowell as the exaggerated Alberto Antonelli, the head of the top-notch company. He's never seen without a white scarf around his neck, and he can't leave a room with throwing its occupants into total chaos. Among his legions of incredible dancers is Ry, played by Neve Campbell, whom I have a newfound respect for as an actress and especially as a trained dancer after seeing this film. There is absolutely no difference between Campbell's dancing and the performances of the rest of the troop. She fits right in.

Despite the presence of actors in THE COMPANY, the film isn't exactly a straight drama either. Certainly, fiction films set backstage are nothing new, but Altman approach is unique. We see emotion behind the scenes, there are little moments of soap opera-ish behavior, but he never really sees any of these storylines to their natural conclusion. They are just flashes in time. What's most important to him (and us, believe me) is the dancing. I haven't been to a dance performance of any kind since college and know nothing about the intricacies of ballet, but I know what looks good and takes my breath away, and the dance numbers in THE COMPANY do exactly that. There's a particularly dramatic moment when Campbell and her dance partner perform in Grant Park during the opening moments of a violent thunder storm. It sounds dorky, I know, but it's really cool. The film deals with everyday studio issues like injuries, fickle choreographers, and inter-company romances, but really THE COMPANY deals with...nothing. There's honestly no story. We see certain dance performances from conception to execution, but we've given no sense of timelines and huge portions of the process are left out. But it doesn't matter. The end result is still extremely entertaining and educational. Altman is smart enough to stay away from the cliched storylines about artists and stick to showing us the art, the final product. In the end that's the stuff we care about, and it's what makes us forgive the lack of narrative structure.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:59 PM


The less you actually think about director John Woo's PAYCHECK, the more you'll like it. Only upon a logical dissection of this film loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (whose works have been turned into BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, and MINORITY REPORT) do you start to get frustrated with the plot's gaping holes and utter lack of sense. If you simply choose to watch the movie and eat popcorn, you'll probably have a blast. Woo delivers what he tends to deliver on every film: top notch action. There's a motorcycle chase here that I thought was better than the one in THE MATRIX RELOADED only because it wasn't done using special effects (as far as I could tell). What is missing from PAYCHECK that I tend to like in other Woo films is the psychological depth that he often breathes into his leads. There is next to nothing here that resembles character development because that would get in the way of the impressive explosions. I can live with that.

The performances are also exactly what is necessary. Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a cocky reverse engineer for hire who disassembles the latest technology, figures out the secrets to how it works, and sells it to companies seeking to one-up the competition. Since this film is set a few years in the future, it is now possible to selectively erase memories. So once Jennings gets paid, he has his partner (the always reliable Paul Giamatti) erase the memory that he ever did the job. Typically these jobs only last a few weeks, so when Jennings is offered a three-year gig to reverse engineer for an old friend (Aaron Eckhart, who tends to excel at playing sleaze bags as he does here) for an astonishing high amount of money, he's hesitant but he's also greedy.

When Michael comes out on the other side of the three years, all hell breaks loose as certain men in black (headed by the extra creepy Colm Feore) are trying to kill him while certain other men in black (in this case, FBI agents Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall) are trying to capture him. Michael finds out that not only did he forfeit his roughly $95 million pay day, but that all he has to show for his three years is an envelope of 20 worthless items that he mailed to himself shortly before he was taken through the process to erase his memories. One by one, the items in the envelope (a watch, sunglasses, a silver dollar, a pack of ball barrings, a crossword puzzle, a magnifying glass, various keys, etc.) become useful to Michael in his efforts to escape capture and find out why he would have given up all that money. In many cases, it almost seems that he knows what's about to happen to him before it does. One thing he has forgotten is that during most of his missing three years he had a relationship with fellow scientist Uma Thurman, who later assists him in unlocking the secrets as to why his life has taken this strange turn. Needless to say, it doesn't take a genius to figure out how Michael knows what dangers are coming in his life, and the climax of the film dangles dangerously close to self-parody, but the fact remains that I had a great time allowing this movie's stupidity to sweep over me. Sometimes it's okay to empty your mind while watching a film. PAYCHECK is the best summer movie playing this holiday season.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:56 PM

Chasing Liberty

Life is hard being the hot, 18-year-old daughter of the President of the United States. Always being followed around by Secret Service agents, being recognized everywhere you go, travelling all over the world for free, never having to worry about money, having access to the best of everything, and no matter how hard you try, you just can't seem to lose that pesky virginity that you've been just itching to get rid of. I feel about as sorry for her as I do Paris Hilton. This is the premise we're asked to buy into in the new Mandy Moore film directed by sitcom super-director Andy Cadiff, whose only other feature work was the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER movie. I wish I'd known that going into the ROMAN HOLIDAY rip off known as CHASING LIBERTY.

Now let me make it clear: of all the world's pop princesses, Mandy Moore is probably my favorite. I've never heard a note of one of her songs but her seeming lack of desire to rip her clothes off for magazine covers and videos makes her all the more likely to get cast as Mistress Mandy in my oft-visited fantasy world. And even before I knew she was a singer, I saw her in A WALK TO REMEMBER and thought she did a credible job as a dying teenager. Of course, every film she's done since then has gotten worse, and her promise as an actress has diminished. But that hasn't stopped her from getting cuter by the day, and in CHASING LIBERTY she's sporting an heretofore unseen ample bosom that provided some much-needed distraction from this junky, woe-is-me pity party of a film. Moore plays Anna Foster, daughter to President James Foster (the wholly unconvincing Mark Harmon), and victim of being too popular for her own good. She seems well adjusted, educated, and personable, but the demands and status of daddy's job take their toll on poor Anna-banana. Boo hoo. After the film's opening botched first date sequence, Anna insists that her father allow her more freedom and be shadowed by fewer agents. The first family takes a trip to Europe, and the First Daddy agrees to let Anna have the opportunity to roam Prague with minimal escort. Too bad their first stop wasn't in Bosnia. By sheer coincidence, Anna bumps into the handsome Ben (newcomer Matthew Goode), a fellow world traveller with an oversized backpack and lots of cameras and film to snap shots of the most beautiful first daughter in the world. What Anna doesn't know is that Ben is also a Secret Service agent acting as something of a safety net for Anna's wandering spirit. Thinking she has escaped the watchful eye of her escorting agents, Anna drags Ben through Prague and eventually through Europe toward her ultimate destination, a goofy daytime rave in Berlin called Love Fest. Despite his best efforts the two start to fall for each other.

The real stars of the film, as I mentioned before, are Moore's breasts, which are shot lovingly by Cadiff and displayed prominently by Moore in a variety of low-cut and/or tight outfits. Without sound, this movie might have done something for me. As it stands, the film is one cliche after another. Anna seems to be in a constant state of looking for the next "amazing" and "incredible" (probably the two words used most in this screenplay) thing to do as a catchy pop tune plays behind montage after montage of her and Ben skipping along the streets of whatever picturesque city they happen to land in. Apparently one of the things, Anna things is "awesome" is taking her clothes off all the time. There are several scenes where Moore rips off her clothes in front of Ben (sometimes to go skinny dipping, sometimes for sex) and he pretends not to react. Good luck, dude. Goode seems like a decent enough actor and his deep British accent and good looks will certainly land him on the cover of many magazines aimed at teenage girls, but he's not asked to do much more than react to Moore's frustrations at just wanting to be a normal girl, a dilemma I think we've faced. And Moore's character comes across as shallow and spoiled. When she doesn't get what (or who) she wants, she storms off in a huff. The film is basically a collection of scenes of people running after her immature self. Hey! Maybe that's why the film is called CHASING LIBERTY since Liberty is the code name Anna has among the Secret Service agents. Could it be that this film is deeper and more awesome than I thought? And there is nothing I hate more in the movies than watching other people having fun. It's not enjoyable watching others doing cool stuff.

As the ultimate insult to the audience, there's actually a second underdeveloped romance going on while the world looks for Anna. Her Secret Service escorts, played by the usually reliable Jeremy Piven and Annabella Sciorra, are also falling for each other. I've never known Piven to be this unfunny or Sciorra to look this bored. Perhaps CHASING LIBERTY's biggest crime is being 100 percent predictable. Once the Ben character was introduced, I knew exactly how the film would end: she'll find out he's an agent, she'll run away into the crowd at Love Fest, he'll save her from the throng, etc. etc. etc. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than knowing what's coming next. Congratulations CHASING LIBERTY, you're the first crappy movie I've seen in 2004.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:51 PM


Once in a very rare while you watch an actor's performance and you consciously are aware that you are seeing something that will forever change your perception of not only that actor but of how deeply certain performances can stir your very soul. The first time I remember going through that experience was my first time see Robert De Niro in RAGING BULL, especially in the scenes where he and his wife are fighting. You feel like a third person in the room who is seeing something you shouldn't be. You're almost tempted to avert your eyes. Al Pacino in PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK or DOG DAY AFTERNOON are other good examples. For slightly older folks than me, Marlon Brando in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was said to change the thinking about acting styles in the eyes of many. For female actors, I recall Meryl Streep in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Liv Ullman in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. But in recent memory, no one comes close to what Charlize Theron pulls off in MONSTER. They shouldn't even bother nominating her for an Oscar; they should just hand it to her now.

By now you've probably read something about the person that Theron is portraying in MONSTER. Aileen Wuornos (whose last name is never actually said in the movie, interestingly enough) was a Florida prostitute who killed a small handful of men who had picked her up on the road for sex. Her spree began with the murder of a man who raped her, but the rage inside her began building before she was even a teenager. Raped by a family friend beginning at age eight, a prostitute at 13, Wuornos has long been credited with being the first female serial killer in American history. She was executed after much pressure by Florida Governor Jeb Bush just recently. The first thing you notice about Theron as Wuornos is the physical transformation: the gained weight, the false teeth, the shaved eyebrows, the ratty hair, the splotchy complexion. But the main thing you notice is that the woman on the screen in no way resembles the Uber-babe I saw a few months ago in THE ITALIAN JOB. The actress playing Aileen Wuornos is a train wreck of a woman, whose life seemed predestined to be lived and end badly. At any one minute, Theron's face changes to show us what passes for happiness, pain, fear, and ultimately sheer fury as she kills her would-be clients believing all of them to be potential rapists. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Theron and first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins is that they inject Wuornos with a soul, twisted and tortured to be sure, but a soul nevertheless. When Wuornos declares to her girlfriend, Selby (Christina Ricci) that she's a good person, we flinch at this statement, but ultimately we realize it may be trued. And this makes us take great pity on her even as she kills.

What separates MONSTER from so many other Hollywood-ized films about serial killers is that there's nothing slick or polished about it. Wuornos never crept up from the shadows to kill her victims, she shot them while they were looking right at her. She doesn't cleverly cover her tracks and leave calling cards for the police to collect; she just kept moving and it took the authorities very little time to find her. The film also does a credible job letting us into Wuornos' mind, into her past, and her into her desperate attempts at leading a normal life with Selby. Bruce Dern is also on hand as Aileen's only male friend, Thomas, whom she views as the only man who doesn't want to hurt her, probably because he look 200 years old and can barely stand upright. And for all of the things I liked so much about MONSTER, the element my mind keeps returning to is Theron's performance. I can see and hear her so clearly in my mind. Her profanity-saturated manner of speaking, her exaggerated masculine posture when she wants to look tough, the way even a smile looks grotesque on her face, all of these details combine to give us the most perfectly drawn character I've seen in as long as I can remember. MONSTER is a film that will unnerve you while you watch and haunt you when it's over.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:46 PM