January 19, 2004

Against the Ropes

On the other end of the true-sports-story spectrum today, I present you with the long-delayed Meg Ryan vehicle AGAINST THE ROPES, also slated to open on February 6. Based on the real life of groundbreaking female boxing promoter Jackie Kallen, this film feels about a bogus as a three-dollar bill, which is surprising because Kallen was at my screening in the flesh peddling this movie hard. I'll grant you that a movie based on real stories doesn't have to be accurate to be interesting, but in this case, every plot twist feels manufactured and apparently they all were. For example, when the events of this film happened in reality, Kallen was married and had two kids. The woman that Ryan plays is single with no kids. There's even a conversation between her and her only boxing client, Luther Shaw (the bored-looking Omar Epps), about why she doesn't have kids. It's almost like taking a highlighter to the lies.

The set up of the movie is okay. Kallen works as a glorified secretary for an Ohio-based promoter named Larocca (Tony Shalhoub, whipping out his tough guy accent for the occasion). After one two many times being called toots and half-pint by the men in the organization, Kallen strikes out on her own and finds Shaw dealing drugs in the projects. After watching him in a street fight, she can tell he's got the stuff to make it as a professional boxer, and hires retired trainer Felix Reynolds (played by director Charles S. Dutton) to whip the thug into shape. In a flurry of activity, Shaw slowly climbs the lower rungs of the professional circuit until it becomes apparent that the only one who stands in his way in the current middle-weight champ, managed by (you guessed it) Kallen's old boss Larocca, who doesn't want to have anything to do with her or her fighter. But we know that won't stop Super-Jackie, who taunts Larocca into a chance at the title. Kallen's fame as a female promoter rises faster than her boxer's, and that doesn't sit well with Shaw, who wants Larocca to buy-out his contract. The climactic match between Shaw and the champ is a joke, plain and simple, and might be the least inspiring sports movie finale in film history. Just to show you how desperate the filmmakers were to find a suitable ending for the story, there's actually a scene where one person starts clapping in Jackie's honor, then another, then another, then the entire room full of extras, including Jackie's most hated adversaries.

I'm guessing the real arc of Kallen's life is pretty interesting in its own right, and rearranging and investing events in her life does her place in history a great injustice. The story of AGAINST THE ROPES feels like Hollywood taking advantage of someone unfamiliar with how movies get made. It was very sad to listen to Kallen justify the changes made to her life story, and I couldn't help pity this woman--who continues to make a life and career of standing up for herself--have to make excuses for selling her soul. AGAINST THE ROPES is a big misfire for Ryan, Dutton, and especially the great Jackie Kallen.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:31 PM


I wasn't even a teenager yet when coach Herb Brooks led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to its shocking victory over the undefeatable Russian squad, but I remember it vividly. Of course, just having watching a beautiful, by-the-number re-creation of the events leading up to that historic day in American history make it a lot easier to recall how excited everyone was at the time. I was too young to care about or remember what the world was like leading up to that day in January. The Vietnam War was still fresh and stinking in everyone's mind, Watergate, gas shortages, President Jimmy Carter's famous speech about American malaise. American morale was sinking fast. What better place to look for escape and inspiration than sports?

When I refer to MIRACLE as "by-the-number," I mean that in the best possible way. There's no pumped-up fluff here. No annoying flashback, stylistic tricks, funky camera angles, or playing fast and furious with the facts. As for as I can tell, this is pretty much a straight retelling of what happened. The truth provides its own drama, rhythm, and arc. For more tolerable than 1981's TV movie "Miracle on Ice," MIRACLE begins with Herb Brooks (nicely underplayed by Kurt Russell) applying for the job that made him famous. The Olympic committee was only interesting in not seeing the team embarrass itself, but Brooks wanted to beat the Russian more than anything. But pulling together a group of players to train for only a few months and having them beat this indestructible force that had been playing together for years seemed unlikely. The film wonderfully dissects Brooks unorthodox, sometimes brutal process of training his boys not to be the best individual players they could be, but the best team, acting with a single mind. And the transformation is astonishing and it's all on the screen. Brooks (who died shortly after principle photography on the film was finished) had a single goal in mind for most of 1979 and didn't care who he alienated, including his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) or his wife (Patricia Clarkson, who's far too good to take such a thankless role, but boy was I glad to see her anyway).

The film's length (in this work print, about 140 minutes by my count) may discourage some, but it shouldn't. It may even shock some to learn that we don't even get to the Lake Placid games until about the 90-minute mark. It doesn't matter. The real work for this team was getting to Lake Placid, not being there. What I found most impressive about director Gavin O'Connor's (TUMBLEWEEDS) approach to MIRACLE is that he doesn't present any of the players as stand-outs until the Olympics begin. Names like team captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig are embedded in my memory forever, but that was because of the media's need to find individual heroes amongst the team members, not because Brooks put any of them in the foreground to get all of the glory. Quite the opposite, some key players were at risk of losing their positions right up until the game. Much like Brooks approach, O'Connor has not cast too many recognizable actors in the roles of the players. Not having much research on the film as yet, I don't think I'd be going out on a limb at guessing that many of the players weren't actors at all. Another smart move by O'Connor and company was to leave the patriotism in the stands. None of the characters dwell on the sense of patriotism this game inspired at the time. It's still a factor of the film (thanks to hundreds of American flags held by fans), but it's not dwelled upon.

Not surprisingly, as good as the build up is, the payoff of MIRACLE is phenomenal. The painstaking work that went into restaging these legendary hockey games is so clear. It feels as if the semi-final game against the Russians is played back in real time, and it's a wise move to spend the time with that game, so we can see all of Brooks' plans and strategies come together. Knowing what went into preparing for that game, nothing that happens surprises us. People in my screening of this film were cheering with each goal and leaping out of their seats when the game ends. I'm not a big fan of sports films as a rule, whether they're true life stories of complete fiction; there's typically only a couple of different ways they can possibly play out. But the story of MIRACLE is so powerful and the execution of this film so strong, you can't help be get excited and feel inspired. MIRACLE is the first great movie I'm seen in 2004. It's scheduled to open February 6.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:29 PM


This one's too easy. TORQUE is total junk, top to bottom garbage. In fact, the only thing that makes the movie remotely watchable is seeing Ice Cube and Fredro Starr, as two brothers in a high-tech motorcycle gang, act circles around the rest of this cast...and that's not saying much. I have a vague recollection of star Martin Henderson in his role as Naomi Watts' ex-husband in THE RING, but any acting talents he may have displayed in that film are forever lost to me after seeing him pathetic turn as Cary Ford, a biker on the run from the law after being accused to drug possession. He disappears for a number of months and resurfaces at a bike rally to reclaim what's his: his woman (Monet Mazur). Both the feds and other gang members (the true owners of the drugs) frame him for murder, chase him for about 80 minutes, everything blows up, the end. The high-speed chase scenes through the streets of Los Angeles looks incredibly fake, the dialogue is laughable, and perhaps the greatest offense to acting comes in the form of Jaime Pressly as "bad girl" China, who licks her lips and sneers for the entire film in black leather. Pressly's a pretty woman but every time her face appeared on screen, I wanted to vomit. Actually, varying degrees of nausea was the constant feeling I experienced while watching the abysmal TORQUE.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:26 PM

Along Came Polly

John Hamburg has written some movies that I enjoyed quite a bit: ZOOLANDER; MEET THE PARENTS; and vastly underrated SAFE MEN (which he also directed). Hamburg's return to directing comes in the form of the new Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy ALONG CAME POLLY, which is also funny at times (thanks largely to an impressive supporting cast) but suffers from being like so many other mainstream, lightweight girl-meets-boy flicks.

Still plays Reuben Feffer, a successful risk analysis expert for an insurance company. He runs his life as he does his work, finding all of the potentials for hazard and avoiding them at all costs. The safest route is the one most traveled. The film opens with Reuben's marriage to Lisa (Debra Messing). The seems happy and content, until the first day of their honeymoon when Lisa cheats on him with a SCUBA instructor named Claude (the very funny French-accented, bare-assed Hank Azaria). Lisa decides she needs time to think about her next step in life, so Reuben returns to the U.S. alone and brokenhearted.

Reuben's best and oldest friend is Sandy Lyle, a former child actor played note-perfect by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Let me interject here to say that Sandy Lyle deserves his own movie. Hoffman has taken on a role seems almost written for Jack Black. Sandy is crass, overweight, playing heavily off his success as a youth in a BREAKFAST CLUB-like film, now suffering the indignity of playing Judas in a community theatre version of "Jesus Christ Superstar." POLLY is worth paying money to see (either in theatres or rental) just for Hoffman's sublime performance. He steals every scene like a rock star. To help take his friend's mind off his heartbreak, Sandy takes Reuben to a gallery opening where Reuben runs into Polly Prince (Aniston), a waitress at the event with whom the two men went to high school. Reuben tracks her down after the event and asks her to dinner. In true Hollywood fashion, Polly is the exact opposite of Reuben: spontaneous, reckless, never considering the risk of any move she makes. Reuben falls in love instantly. Everything I've written about so far takes place in the first 30 minutes of the movie.

The bulk of POLLY is the scenes of Polly taking Reuben places where he feels ill-at-ease: Indian restaurants (Reuben doesn't like spicy food or eating with your hands); Latin dancing clubs (he doesn't dance), etc. You get the idea. But he's willing to put up with these against-type ordeals to be with Polly. Meanwhile at work, Reuben's man's man boss played by Alec Baldwin has given him the assignment of assessing the insurability of a daredevil industrialist named Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown). Both in his private and personal life, Reuben is assault by risk takers, and he finds himself learning from them.

There's nothing inherently wrong with ALONG CAME POLLY. It's heart is in the right place, and Still and Aniston is a nice pairing. There are some truly funny moments in the film, most of them supplied by Hoffman, but there are a few too many minutes between the big laughs. Based on its Number 1 ranking at last weekend's box office, I think it would be safe to categorize POLLY as a crowd-pleaser, and there's nothing wrong with that. Stiller has two more films being released in the near future (ENVY with Jack Black and STARSKY AND HUTCH with his long-time screen partner Owen Wilson); I'm looking forward to those a lot more than I was this.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:25 PM

The Butterfly Effect

The King of the Goofballs, Ashton Kutcher, wants you to know he's more than just a guy that yells a lot on his "That 70s Show" T.V. show or the guy who "punks" people on MTV. In the sci-fi/adventure/love story THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, Kutcher's character, Evan, is a disturbed guy who has been prone to irregular black outs since he was a child. Well, they're not so much black outs as they are lapses in memory. He's been friends with a girl named Kayleigh (played as an adult by Amy Smart) since they were little kids, and thanks to her twisted father (played by Eric Stoltz), she grew up fated to fail in life. Evan's father lives in a mental hospital suffering from on unknown disease that drives him to think he can somehow shift time. The film's early scenes of the kids (who also include Kayleigh's disturbed brother Tommy and Evan's best friend Lenny) have sort of a STAND BY ME quality to them. The children see and do things kids shouldn't have to go through. A misadventure with a large firecracker in mailbox results in the death of a woman and her baby. Kayleigh's father decides to use his video camera and some of the kids in despicable ways. All of these events shape who these people will become later in life.

As a means of coping with his screwy childhood and at the advice of his mother (Melora Walters), Evan begins keeping journals of every major event in his life, a practice he continues through college, where he seems to be a great student and little social life. While reading his journals from childhood, Evan suffers a jolting vision of a part of his childhood that was previous blocked out. The vision inspires him to go back to his hometown to visit Kayleigh, whom he hasn't seen since his mother moved them away shortly after the firecracker incident. But when Evan finds her waitressing at a local diner and brings up the video camera story, the dredged up memory causes Kayleigh so much pain she kills herself. This may sound like I'm giving you story spoilers here, but such is not the case. All of this happens before the half-hour mark in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT.

The shock of Kayleigh's death trouble Evan so much that he wishes he could go back and change the past. He recalls the incident with his journals, and he tries to think back to the exact point in his life where Kayleigh could be saved from her father, reads that part of his journals, and Whomp! he's sent back in time inside his young body but with Evan's grown-up mind (kind of like BIG, but without the humor). Evan changes the past and when he brings himself back to the present, everything has changed. But each time Evan screws around with the past, some unforeseen new event screw up the lives of himself or one of his three friends even force than the original timeline. So Evan has to keep digging out the journals and going back to another place in time to cure a different ill. It soon becomes clear that Evan's childhood blackouts occur exactly where his future self injected his mind into the younger version of him. I know, I know. It all sounds incredibly confusing, but while you're watching it, it makes sense...sort of. Actually a few things don't make sense. If Evan was able to change his life at certain points, wouldn't his journal entries have changed as well? They don't seen to. And is it plausible that no matter what track his life takes, Evan basically hangs around the same three people all the way through college? Apparently the guy doesn't get out much no matter how his life progresses. And yes, his father's mental illness does play into the scenario. Big shocker there.

Writers-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (the writers of the fun FINAL DESTINATION 2) have piled so many layers of time into this movie, I think the presumption is that no one watching could possibly keep track of everything going on or their believability. And in a lot of ways, it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the film. Maybe the biggest problem with BUTTERFLY EFFECT is seeing Kutcher in a few choice ultra-serious situations. I found myself laughing at the most inappropriate times mainly because I was waiting for Ashton to start cracking up. There's one shot of him crying while sitting in a wheelchair and he has stubs for arms that are sort of pointed in funny angles. I almost lost it. I couldn't help it. A stub-armed Ashton Kutcher is funny! So sue me. And don't even get me started on the sequence set in prison where Kutcher offers himself up as a prison bitch to some skinheads. Oh man, that was a scream.

But I laugh because I care, and THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT works more often than it doesn't. There are a few choice scares near the beginning. I like how each jump in time turned every character into a different version of themselves, sometimes good and successful, sometimes completely screwed up. I particularly like Amy Smart's scarred hooker persona. Very convincing. Just don't strain yourself thinking to hard about the film's logic. It won't hold up, trust me. THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is a real crowd-pleaser for people who like to turn their brains off when they go to the movies.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:21 PM