January 19, 2004


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

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

January 09, 2004


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

December 18, 2003

Cold Mountain

Even before I saw COLD MOUNTAIN, I new that this year's Oscar race for best film would be between it and RETURN OF THE KING. Now that I've seen it, my opinion hasn't changed. If anything, the race is even tougher to predict. If the recent Golden Globe nominations prove anything, it's that COLD MOUNTAIN--based on the hugely poplar novel by Charles Frazier--is the type of film (for better or worse) that tends to win lots of "important" awards. It's got noble intentions, it's long (about 2.5 hours), it's tragic, and it's got lots of big, talented actors in even the smallest roles. But is it any good? Actually, yes. Above all else, COLD MOUNTAIN is an exceptional film filled with beautiful panoramic views, great performances, and the type of modern melodrama that is the trademark of director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).

The story begins during the Civil War as Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman in full Scarlet O'Hara mode) and her minister father (Donald Sutherland) roll into the town of Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Almost instantly upon arrival, she lays eyes on a workman named Inman (Jude Law in his best work to date) and the two instantly fall in love, despite never having a chance to act on it. They exchange photos just before Inman is shipped off to fight for the South, and there's an unspoken pact between them that they will wait for each other if they meet on the other side of the conflict. Shortly after Inman leaves, Ada's father dies, leaving her with nothing more than a large estate and no one to work it. She's penniless, skill-less, and reluctantly relies on the help of neighbors such as the Swanger family (with strong matriarch Sally, played by Kathy Baker). Word gets out the Ada needs help but can pay nothing, and the only soul brave enough to volunteer to help whip the estate/farm back into shape is the mountain-girl Ruby Thewes, a whirlwind of a character played by Renee Zellweger, in a role that seems like a caricature at first with her heavy redneck accent and rough-neck ways. But as the film goes on and Ruby's background becomes clearer, we realize how complex Zellweger's portrayal is. She's quite wonderful in the film.

On the battlefield, Inman does and sees some truly horrible things, and after years of mindless violence, he takes advantage of a war wound and deserts with a solitary mission: to make it back to Cold Mountain and Ada. Most of the movie is split between these two storylines, both of which are equally compelling. Ada and Ruby join forces to revitalize the estate and fend off bands of vigilantes set on killing any deserters or those harboring them. When Ruby's estranged father (Brendan Gleeson) and his two deserter companions (one of which is White Stripes singer Jack White, surprisingly good in a key role) show up seeking help, the film gets a whole lot better. Inman, on the other hand, embarks on a far more treacherous journey, being a deserter himself. His travels are more episodic and each new town offers him (and us) a new set of character that we don't know if we can trust or not. Among some of the memorable performances in these sequences are featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as a randy preacher who impregnates a slave girl, Natalie Portman as a terrified and lonely widow and new mother, and Giovanni Ribisi as a sly tracker who also runs a brothel. Either one of these two story threads could have been its own film, and you feel privileged to see them both.

COLD MOUNTAIN is top-notch filmmaking featuring the finest group of actors and behind-the-scenes folks working today. It's difficult to single out just one or two performances as being the best, but Jude Law truly impressed me here, and Zellweger is stunning to watch as she rips through her character like a wild banshee. Her chances of winning awards for this role are the highest of any involved. It's always so reassuring when everything comes together like this, especially on a project that clearly cost a lot of money. Take heed, this is one of the best films of the year.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:21 PM

December 16, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

At Butt Numb-a-Thon 5, our host Harry Knowles gave us a whole song and dance about how "Return of Captain Marvel" was one of the great movie serials in serial history, and I'll admit the first chapter was pretty great, so great in fact that I moaned loudly when the film ended and the screen went black. Then the curtains started to open wide and the New Line logo appeared. That son of a bitch Harry never stops with his trickery and deceit. I'm not going to review THE RETURN OF THE KING beyond these few words: This film caps off the greatest in-total film experience I've ever had. The trilogy is worth more than the sum of its parts because of ROTK. It confirms and restores my faith in the potential of big-budget filmmaking (although it does not give me much faith that any other filmmaker will take the time and muster the spirit to undertake such an ambitious project). But more than anything, if you have any stake in the "Lord of the Rings" story and characters (either in book or film format), you will cry at the end of ROTK. Maybe more than once. There's no way you won't.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:35 PM

December 01, 2003

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


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

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