December 01, 2003

House of Sand and Fog

This holiday season may go down as the most depressing on record with films like 21 GRAMS and THE LAST SAMURAI (which you can probably tell from the title doesn't end well). But I think HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (based on the book by Andre Dubus III) has them all beat. This film is drop-dead misery, and I mean that in the best possible way. It also just happens to be a film filled with great acting, a devastating story about the danger of letting your unchecking emotions get the best of you, and a visual style from newcomer Vadim Perelman (who some of you may have heard has been assigned the task of turning the Stephen King-Peter Straub novel THE TALISMAN into a film for 2005) that is both eerie and completely appropriate. I know people say crap like this all the time, but the look of this film (having much to do with the weather) is like its own character here.

Ben Kingsley plays a former high-ranking Iranian colonel named Massoud Amir Behrani who was forced out of Iran when the Shah left. He fled for America with his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo), daughter, and son. He was unable to take much money with him, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to appear rich to his friends and associates. His main concern in life was to make money to give his daughter a chance of marrying well (which she does early in the film) and to get his son into a fine university. He works two menial jobs and nearly drives his family broke for appearances sake. Then one day he discovers the world of seized property auctions, and he uses all that his family has left to buy at a fraction of its price a spacious sea-side seized house, which was taken from a woman (Jennifer Connelly) for missing only $500 in back taxes that she shouldn't have even been charged in the first place. Connelly's Kathy Nicolo is a recovering substance abuser who lives at the house alone, doesn't look at her mail, and basically sleeps all day. When she finds herself suddenly homeless, she is befriended by the deputy sheriff assisting in her eviction, Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard). Kathy's lawyer (Frances Fisher) explains to her that if the Behrani will sell the house back to the county for what he paid, she could move back in. Otherwise, she's without a home or money. But Behrani has already had the house appraised for three times what he paid, and has no intention of selling. As he and his wife and son fix up the house, they start to grow fond of it, especially the seaside location, which reminds them of their home on the Caspian Sea in Iran.

Posted by sprokopy at 03:01 PM

The Last Samurai

Almost without fail, director Edward Zwick's films (GLORY, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, COURAGE UNDER FIRE, THE SIEGE) all have the same effect on me. I see all of their faults and there are probably a dozen reasons why these movies shouldn't work, but they always suck me in and force me to like them anyway. THE LAST SAMURAI is probably the easiest Zwick film to like despite what I believe is the dreadful miscasting of Tom Cruise in the lead as war hero Nathan Algren, a man who sours at the idea that his bet years are behind him and has begrudgingly settled into a life of personal appearances and drunken stupors. Still, Cruise won me over, especially in the film's second half, by simply shutting up and letting the beauty and elegance of a dying Japanese culture be the center of attention.

Algren is hired by progressive-thinking Japanese railroad tycoons looking to enlist American war heroes to go to Japan and fight the last of the samurai, who are struggling to hold on the old ways of Japan and resists Westernized ways. Algren is brought into the battle by his former commanding officer Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), who Algren has serious misgivings about for reasons I'll keep secret for now. Algren drags along with him the faithful Sgt. Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly) for comic relief. Algren trains the Japanese troops in how to use rifles, and defend themselves against the samurai's awesome skills with swords, arrows, and staffs. In the first clash between the new Japanese army and the samurai, Algren is captured after putting up an amazing fight. The samurai leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is so impressed with him that he takes him back to their village in the mountains rather than kill him. Despite their fighting on opposite side, Algren acknowledges the he has no real grudge with the samurai and, instead, takes to observing the disciplined manner in which they live every aspect of their lives. Algren and Katsumoto (who is learning English) form a tentative friendship based on mutual admiration of each other's warrior ways. Not a lot happens in this mid-section of the film, but that's okay. The training sequences (which Algren joins in on) substitute for action, and it works. The early stages of a love story also start up as Cruise begins to fall for the woman running the dwelling where he's being allowed to say. They have a unwelcome connection that he's unaware of, and it threatens the relationship, but the love story is a minor part of this movie.

In the film's jaw-dropping third act, the key themes are blood, gore, and death...and more blood. In the final battle between new and old Japan, it seems that every stroke of a samurai sword results in a gaping wound or a complete run through an opponents body. Blood is gushing from every sword cut and bullet hole. I'm sure there is some degree of special effects at work here, but it's flawless. And this is no KILL BILL-style sword fighting; you feel the weight and sharpness of every stroke. Thankfully, no wire works here either. This is reality, people. This battlefield is shear brutality, and those who loved Zwick's battle scenes in GLORY will not be disappointed as you wipe the blood from your brow. THE LAST SAMURAI is one of those rare films that works as well during its most quiet and serene moments as it does during its most booming and relentlessly violent. I was genuinely impressed by all of the actors, even Cruise who shows a gift for knowing when to step into the background, and Zwick's fantastic eye for action and scenic views. The visual style of THE LAST SAMURAI reminded me a lot of some of Kurosawa's later color films in its treatment of color, in particular, blood red. This is a hearty, worthy film filled with great things despite its few flaws. It opens December 5.

Posted by sprokopy at 03:00 PM

Mona Lisa Smile

I've been genuinely impressed with some of the choices Julia Roberts has made lately, especially when she started (and hasn't really stopped) working with Stephen Soderbergh. OCEAN'S ELEVEN, FULL FRONTAL, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, ERIN BROCKOVICH, THE MEXICAN, even going back as far as CONSPIRACY THEORY, NOTTING HILL, and STEPMOM are all watchable, if not always successful, edgy endeavors. Because of this, I was a little let down by her latest work, MONA LISA SMILE, a return to safer ground for Roberts, but a film not without its highlights. Julia plays Katherine Watson, a rookie art history professor at the all-girls Wellesley College in the mid-1950s. She far more progressive and independent than any of the other teachers, and naturally her presence and influence on the girls polarizes the students and other faculty members. When she discovers that the school is essentially a finishing school for women who will aspire to nothing more than being the wives of successful men, she is furious and determined to not let that happen to her girls. The problem with Roberts is that she doesn't surprise us her. You can probably guess without even seeing the trailer how she's going to play this role. And if you have seen the trailer, well, you've seen the movie. She gets the job done, yes, but she isn't trying or challenging herself to play this part and it's a let down. As forward-thinking as she is, she still has time to fall for the school's hunky Italian teacher, Bill (Dominic West), who apparently sleeps with his students.

The upside of MONA LISA SMILE are the students. Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal are among Roberts' charges. Dunst is a little too patently mean, but Stiles and the sexually liberated Gyllenhaal really shine here. Stiles, whose character is on the pre-law track (although she has no intention of going to law school) becomes Katherine's project. She wants her to think of a life outside of simple being a wife and standing in someone else's shadow. Also doing fine work here in smaller roles are Juliet Stevenson, who appears all too briefly as Katherine's lesbian housemate and fellow professor, and Marcia Gay Harden as the third housemate, who has given up on men entirely as is content to become an old maid before she's 45, watching T.V. in a sort of sad contentment.

Director Mike Newell (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, DONNIE BRASCO, and 2005's HARRY POTTER entry) has a sure hand guiding his story and characters through one pseudo-drama after another, but there's nothing really inspirational here. I'm not knocking the film's pro-independent woman messages at all. Girl Power, and all that. But I can't imagine women or young ladies of today getting anything of substance from this film. In case you hadn't heard, women can vote and run companies and do all sorts of manly things already. And since I'm pretty sure the story of MONA LISA SMILE isn't based on a true story (I apologize if it is), this tale isn't being told as a historical biopic. So why is it being told? I'm not exactly sure. The acting is top-notch and the film's locations a stunning to look at, but there's a valuable piece missing here: relevance. It opens December 19.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:58 PM


This might be at the top of my list right now for worst movie of the year, not because the acting is terrible (it is), not because the music is unlistenable and repetitive (ditto), not because the story and characters are vapid and pointless (check and check), but because HONEY offers oversized portions of all of these factors. This is the kind of film you're going to play for your friends five years from now just to piss them off. I WOULD wish this movie on my worst enemy, and I hope he chokes on it.

HONEY is the "story" of a dance instructor and bartender named Honey Daniels ("Dark Angel's" Jessica Alba). And in case you forget her name, nearly every song in this movie has the word "Honey" repeated over and over again. Honey biggest dream is to become a dancer in music videos....I shit you not. She auditions like crazy, but is eventually discovered by a video director (David Moscow) who sees her shake her amazing form at the club where she bartends. I found it a little disturbing that the only major white character in the film (Moscow) is also the biggest asshole and practically tries to rape Honey in the movie's most awkward sequence. Reverse racism is alive and well. Anyway, Honey eventually works her way into choreographing music videos and holds meetings with director and artists that seem about as real as...well, nothing. They seem fake and laughable. Honey "teaches hip-hop" (whatever the hell that means) at the local youth rec center, where she meets a basketball playing Chaz (Mekhi Phifer, whom I felt the most sorry for trapped in this garbage). Also zipping in and out of my field of vision for 80 minutes is hip-hop artist and non-actor Lil' Romeo, who reads his lines about as convincingly as Steven Seagal on "Saturday Night Live."

If HONEY had actually been about a woman making her way from dancer to choreographer, I might have been remotely interested, and I'll admit that watching Jessica Alba swing her hips is pretty inspirational. Unfortunately, she only really does this aggressively in the first 10 minutes of the film. Instead, we are forced to endure meaningless subplots about Romeo's crappy life. Will he deal drugs and go to jail, or can being a dancer in one of Honey's videos save the day? Who the hell cares? Will Honey blow off her best friend's (Joy Bryant) birthday trip to Atlantic City to go to a mega-hip music industry party with her would-be play-rapist director/mentor? Again, who cares? The entire gumbo of nonsense culminates with a "big show" that Honey must put on to put a downpayment on a dance studio she's trying to get off the ground. Apparently the big show lasts all of one routine, and a lame one at that. Oy! As much as this film would like to recall the pleasure of watching a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER or FLASHDANCE, the movie it is most likely to be compared to is GLITTER. All that really happens here (like in GLITTER) is that all of the characters tell the lead actress how beautiful and talented she is for 80 minutes. If you're on the lookout for a film that will push you over the edge and inspire you to swallow a shotgun, we have a winner. It opens December 5 and hopefully closes December 6.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:57 PM

Cheaper By The Dozen

I know I've seen the 1950 original filmed version of the legendary book by and about the family of Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., a leading efficiency expert who essentially used his family as guinea pigs for his theories on field of motion (in real life, the Gilbreth family had only 11 children). Clifton Webb played Mr. Gilbreth in the original, and in the 2003 remake, the always reliable Steve Martin fills in as Thomas Baker (get it, Baker's dozen? Ha!), a high school football coach married to Kate, a former Chicago Tribune journalist (Bonnie Hunt) who is writing a humorous book about their super-sized family situation. To save money on housing costs, the family moved into a home in the sticks of downstate Illinois many years ago. But when Mr. Baker gets the chance to coach the football team at his alma mater college, he uproots the family and moves to Chicago (Evanston, IL actually). The kids miss their simpler life in the country and basically they all start to make trouble for their parents right as both their careers start to take off. CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN has lots of laughs but it also has a lot of dead space and a few too many HOME ALONE moments. The entire time I was watching this film, I couldn't help thinking, "Wow, SCHOOL OF ROCK handled its child actors so much more intelligently and believably."

Surprisingly in a film filled with so many cut kids, most of the interesting sections of CHEAPER come from its more grown actors. In addition to the very funny riffs by Martin and Hunt, an uncredited performance by Ashton Kutcher as the live-in self-obsessed actor boyfriend of the Baker's oldest daughter (Piper Perabo). I want to find reasons to hate this guy, I really do, but the guy makes me laugh almost every time I've seen him on film. His monologue about why he hates the Baker children (because one of them might damage his oh-so valuable beautiful face) is a riot. And the scene where the kids soak his underwear in meat to get the family dog to munch on his crotch should not have made me laugh as much as it did, but I won't apologize. Also on hand are "Smallville's" Tom Welling as the oldest son, Charlie, who is the closest to genuinely despising his parents, and Hilary Duff, who still thinks she needs to overact and over-enunciate in order to reach her key Disney Channel fan base. Maybe the film's most disturbing aspect is its ultimate message, which appears to be: you can't have a big family and a two-career household without your kids hating you. As if parents running large families don't have enough to worry about.

Still, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN made me laugh more often than not; Martin and Hunt are a great couple; the nerdiest, outcast sibling is one of the heroes of the film; and the film's outtakes during the end credits are actually some of the funniest stuff in the movie. CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN could have been a lot worse (quote that in your print ads, Fox!), and is, in fact, highly watchable. The movie opens December 25.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:56 PM


TIMELINE is better than I thought it would be but still not very good. Based on a fairly strong novel by Michael Crichton, the movie dispenses with much of the book's detailed science and essentially tells us that time travel is possible but only if you stumble upon it totally by accident. Um, yeah. We meet a team of archeologists exploring the site of a major 14th century turning-point battle between the English and French, which the French won. The team leader is a professor amusingly played by Billy Connolly (also added a little comic relief in THE LAST SAMURAI). The expedition is being funded by a "Big Company" led by David Thewlis. The motives of this company funding such an endeavor are unclear, but the team basically jumps when Thewlis says jump. As a result, when Connolly is called to the company headquarters, he does so without question. Not long after he leaves, members of the team (which include FAST & THE FURIOUS' Paul Walker as Connolly's son, Frances O'Connor, and Gerard Butler) stumble across a hidden tunnel and find parts of the professor's glasses and a scribbled plea for help in his handwriting. The artifacts are carbon dated and sure enough, they are about 650 years old. Hmmm.

A few team members head to The Company for answers and find that the professor was sent back in time to the site of the dig. (I won't go into to highly evolved scientific explanation of how time travel is possible or how they get back to this time--the filmmakers barely do--because I don't want to strain your tiny human brains.) Soon most of the team members, along with some professional adventurers hired by The Company, head back to 14th century England to find their lost professor. Everything I've told you to now takes up the first 20 minutes of this two-hour film. The rest of the movie is basically members of the team getting caught, escaping, hiding, running, fighting, getting caught again. You know the drill. I'm no history expert, but the most annoying part of this to me is that even English-speaking people in the 14th century didn't speak the same kind of English that we do today. This issue was addressed in the book; ignored here. Never mind. The final battle between the French and the English is actually pretty cool and involves lots of fire, arrows, and swordplay. I particularly liked Lambert Wilson (the Merovingian from the most recent two MATRIX films) as the French leader Lord Arnaut, and Anna Friel as the feisty Lady Claire, the "centerpiece" of the final battle. But some fiery slings and arrows don't quite make up for the fairly standard cat-and-mouse stuff that makes up the bulk of the film. I expect a little more from director Richard Donner, who in many ways reinvented action film with works like the LETHAL WEAPON film and the first two SUPERMAN movies. Most of what's here in TIMELINE is cookie-cutter action and even worse dialogue. And will someone please wake up and stop giving work to Paul Walker? I don't care how good looking the guy is, he's a horrible actor and should be stopped immediately. TIMELINE is decidedly average.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:55 PM

Bad Santa

As much as I adore the sublime, more subtle humor of perfect little movies like LOST IN TRANSLATION and AMERICAN SPLENDOR, I'm also a gi-normous fan of balls-out vulgarity. I love to laugh at sick shit, and based on the heat that's coming down on BAD SANTA even before its release this week, I'd say we have an absolute winner in the "Most Wonderfully Sick Film of the Year" category. I loved this movie. It has no scruples, no class, and aims low in a tale of a professional mall Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) and his elf sidekick (Tony Cox) who pose at a different department store in a different part of the country every year and then knock off the place on Christmas Eve. The only problem is that Billy Bob is a drunken womanizer who hates children with a sadistic passion, and every year he risks blowing the gig through major acts of insubordination. He's a mean, crass S.O.B., people. Bernie Mac is on hand as the head of the pair's latest target store, and rather than turn them in, he wants a piece of the action. Also in the mix is Lauren Graham as a bartender that Billy Bob hooks into and who has a thing for guys in Santa suits, and the late John Ritter as the meek department store manager. He's really good here and as sad as it is to see him, it's great that he went out in such a funny movie like this. At the helm of this bit of nastiness is CRUMB and GHOST WORLD director Terry Zwigoff, who directs exactly as he should: as if he didn't have a heart or an ounce of sentimentality about Christmas or cute kids. The film is a ruthless look at human beings, and despite a vague attempt at redemption at the end of the film, pretty much everyone comes out looking like a asshole. It's great, evil fun. Give into your base desires, folks. Ho ho ho. It opens this week.

P.S.: I'm only going to say this once: THIS IS NOT A FILM FOR KIDS!! Consider yourselves warned. There is nothing in this film that children should see.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:53 PM


There's pretty much no way to deny it at this point: Halle Berry is a damn fine actress. That Oscar she won a couple years back wasn't a fluke, and she proves it hear with a powerhouse performance as Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist working in a spooky looney bin (the kind that Hollywood likes to light like a spook house) who has a happy marriage to the hospital administrator (played by Charles S. Dutton) and whose co-worker (Robert Downey Jr.) has a major crush on her. Typical story for today's working girl. Anyway, after meeting with her most disturbed patient (Penelope Cruz), who claims that a man comes to her cell every night and rapes her, Dr. Grey heads home on a rainy night and runs off the road trying to avoid a scared, shivering woman in the middle of the road. She races to the woman's aid and blacks out. When she wakes up days later, her husband has been violently murdered in their home and she's been locked up in the very hospital where she works, accused of snapping and committing the crime. She's positive she didn't do this, but as her memories start to return, it becomes clear that she probably did. It also becomes clear that she is being visited by the dead daughter of the head of the hospital, played by LORD OF THE RINGS' Bernard Hill. Adding the supernatural element onto an already pretty tense film boosts the fun of the movie, but it also turns an a-level psychological thriller/murder mystery into a classy b-movie with an a-list cast.

French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz (who played the object of the title character's affections in AMELIE) does a terrific job establishing one of the creepiest atmospheric films since last year's THE RING. The scares are jump inducing, special effects are used sparingly, and Kassovitz relies as much on his excellent cast as he does on moody lighting to freak us out. Berry does a great job mixing her portrayal of a stereotypical scared female lead with that of an educated woman who realizes early on that the ghostly figure that abuses the hell out of her early on is not just the product of her possibly delusional mind, and she sets out to discover why this ghost has singled her out for victimization. I'll give you a hint: it's not a coincidence. GOTHIKA is top-notch smart and scary stuff.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:52 PM

The Cat in the Hat

Two hundred percent junk. If there was an actual scale of colossal failures in artistic filmmaking or even on semi-entertaining Hollywood junk, THE CAT IN THE HAT would tip that scale right over the side of a massive cliff. Mike Myers as the title character isn't funny despite his use (more like overuse) of countless voices and physical humor. Nothing he did or said made me laugh. And who the heck is this "cat"? Granted, he's supposed to be a metaphor for children's bad behavior but for all we know, he's friggin' John Wayne Gacy. Whatever he is, he's creepy. At least Ron Howard gave The Grinch a back story. And speaking of creepy, a ill-timed cameo by Paris Hilton in mock club sequence certainly made me feel dirty. The colorful art direction of this movie gave me a headache. The performances are overplayed and just plain lame. The humor borders on crude and inappropriate at times. The movie and every thing about it is a miserable hairball of a movie that deserves to be coughed up and spit out with the rest of garbage. Before this movie, I considered myself a cat person. I'm seriously considering changing sides.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:51 PM

The Missing

I've been reading for years that director Ron Howard was looking to direct a Western that didn't adhere to any of the standard-issue Western guidelines. No saloons, no gunfights at high noon in a wind-swept town, no cattle drives, etc. And for the most part, he's succeeded with his anti-Western THE MISSING. And even when he does fall back on classic Western fixtures, it works. The whole film works beautifully.

The first very non-Western thing he does is make his main protagonist a woman, in this case a single mother named Maggie Gilkeson, played with a perfect combination of brute force and intense femininity by chameleon Cate Blanchett. She lives on a small farm in New Mexico near the Mexican border with her two daughters, Lilly (THIRTEEN's Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), and makes a living as an unlicensed doctor. A kind and handsome suitor (Aaron Eckhart) visits her often and even occasionally stays overnight, but she is resistant to his marriage proposals. One day, an old Indian comes riding in on his mule, supposedly looking for help. After a while, it becomes clear that the man isn't an Indian at all, but a white man who has lived among Indians for decades and has lived their life as his own. Tommy Lee Jones, playing the first real character he's played in a long while that didn't seen to be a variation of his role in THE FUGITIVE, is magnificent as Samuel Jones, who just also happens to be Maggie's long-estranged father who abandoned the family when she was still young. Maggie wants nothing to do with him and forces him to leave without making peace with her.

The next morning, the suitor takes the two daughters with him as he rounds up his cattle for branding. They never return. After waiting all night for them to return, Maggie hops a horse and tries to find them. What she discovers is pretty nasty: A campsite where some bloody doings have taken place. Dot wanders out of the woods scared out of her mind, the elder daughter has been taken, and the suitor...well, let's just say it's gruesome. Dot finally manages to tell her mother that it was an Indian that has kidnapped Lilly, and Maggie sets out in search of her father to see if he can shed any light on the matter and help find her daughter. It turns out that the Indian in question is part of a large group of slave traders (both Indian and white) who kidnap white and Indian women, take them across the Mexican border, and sell them for prostitution. Once the cross the border, Sam says, they are lost forever. So the task becomes to find them before they cross.

Ron Howard has constructed a remarkable work in THE MISSING, as he mixes the natural with the supernatural. Eric Schweig (THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS) plays the scarred and frightening Chidin, something of an evil medicine man who loves to blow hallucinogenic dust into the faces of his enemies and watch them slowly lose their minds. Or he just tortures them. Take your pick. Howard smartly doesn't race through his story. In addition to this being a story of finding a kidnapped teenager, THE MISSING is also about dealing with age-old grudges between a father and daughter, perhaps the more impossible task. Not surprisingly, the vistas Howard uses are stunning, the acting is superb, the story is compelling, and it becomes clear early on that the question of who lives and who dies is not as certain as you might think with a cast this high profile. Just to keep us on our toes, Howard peppers interesting cameos here, including ones by his father, his brother Clint, his WILLOW start Val Kilmer, and even Eckhart's role should probably fall into this grouping.

Although not nearly as violent as something like THE LAST SAMURAI, this film is rated R for violence, and it's actually a breath of fresh air to have Howard working under more hard-core circumstances. He conserves his blood for key sequences when they will have the most impact, to great effect. It's also a nice break from form to have Tommy Lee Jones doing something other than playing a wise-ass. Here, he's a concerned father and grandfather who knows he has much to make up for and probably little time to do so. And he's a wise-ass! THE MISSING illustrates the best of what Ron Howard does (with exceptions like THE GRINCH), he makes no frills films that focus on story and characters and less on special effects and gimmicks, as he did in APOLLO 13 and BEAUTIFUL MIND. He has faith in his material, his actors, and his audience. What a refreshing way to make movies.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:47 PM