January 19, 2004

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

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

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

December 16, 2003

Calendar Girls

Everything you've heard about CALENDAR GIRLS is true. This is the real-life story of a group of middle-aged to elderly British women who posed artfully nude for a calendar a couple years ago to raise funds for Leukemia research as a tribute to one of their late husbands and ended up earning piles of money and breaking worldwide calendar sales records that rivaled and outsold the likes of Britney Spears, making them international celebrities. This film is NOT the female version of THE FULL MONTY. Anyone who says that is lazy and wrong. These members of the Rylstone Women's Institute in North Yorkshire are a far cry from the working-class schlubs of MONTY. However, both films possess an innocent humor that will win you over in the first five minutes, due in large part to the genius and talent of Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. These two should make 10 more films together. Their natural banter and utterly convincing performances as two old friends bored to tears with the WI meetings and calendars is what sells the film and provides its deep heart. Being that this is one of the few films I've seen in quite a while that features this many women in the this age bracket, my guess is this will be THE "small" UK hit of the holidays, following in the tradition of films like MONTY, WAKING NED DEVINE, and most recently BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM.

The film is a no-frills account of the birth, execution, and success of the calendar ideas, and it was both fascinating and funny to watch the process of women in their 50s and 60s talk themselves and others out of their clothes. The success of the calendar brings the women and their families some unwanted attention of the notorious British tabloids and from Hollywood types looking to cash in on their popularity. I didn't think the Hollywood stuff held a candle to the British-based parts of the story, but it was intriguing to see which women let fame go to their heads and which remember the source of inspiration for the calendar and try to keep the proceedings dignified. I've had a not-so-secret crush on Julie Walters since I saw her in EDUCATING RITA, and my well-documented love for Helen Mirren knows no bounds (I know she's way too good for the likes of me, but a guy can dream, right?), so to see these two together is something of a dream come true. The film is light-hearted fun, a unique story told in a fairly conventional way. I'm guessing older women are going to be knocking down us youngsters to get to this one. It opens this weekend in most places.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:26 PM

Stuck On You

It's not the best work that the Farrelly Brothers (Bobby and Peter) have done, but like pizza, even bad is good. Although they've had mentally challenged people in their films before, this time around the Farrellys actually feature a handicap (conjoined twins) as the running gag...and it doesn't get old, even at 120 minutes. The twins are played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, and as much as I like Damon as an actor and in this film, it's Kinnear that makes the film work. Damon's Bob character is a bit dopey and perfection content to maintain his life in Martha's Vineyard as a master short order cook, but Kinnear's Walk has ambition and wants to take his success as a local actor to Hollywood. You must see Kinnear's "one-man" show at the local community theatre as Truman Capote. Brilliant! The two decide to move to Hollywood and give Walt's acting career a shot.

Since conjoined twins aren't exactly hot property in L.A., it's not surprising that the pair find it difficult to get work. They do find an agent in the form of Seymour Cassel's Morty O'Reilly, the sleaziest agent ever in films. He's great. The boys rent a cruddy motel room at the Rising Star and meet super sexy Latina Barbie Eva Mendes (OUT OF TIME), as a bubbly airhead whose an actress but has mainly done lingerie modeling. Bob has been carrying on an internet romance with an Asian woman named May (Wen Yahnn Shih), whom he's never met but since she lives in L.A., he thinks he might try to hook up. The only problem is he's never mentioned that he's a conjoined twin. After a series of failed audition, Walt decides it may be time to head back east when he's spotted by Cher (played, oddly enough, by the real Oscar-winning actress), who wants him as her leading man in her new T.V. series. What she really wants is to not do T.V. at all and she's hoping the network will kill the show after seeing the pilot and she'll be off the hook. Instead the network sticks with the show and it becomes a huge hit. It looks like things are going great for the guys, so great in fact, they start to wonder if it's time they thought about being separated. The share a liver and there's some risk that Walt will die upon separation. I don't want to get too much deeper into the story, but STUCK ON YOU sneaks up on you and actually wins your heart while it making you giggle. Kinnear and Damon are a terrific comedy team, and you rarely find yourself laughing at what the can't do because they're connecting; you laugh at what they can do (let's just say, Walt has much better luck with the ladies than Bob).

Besides Cher, another extremely talented and famous actress makes a cameo in STUCK ON YOU that I won't ruin, but her appearance elevates this film in ways I didn't think possible. STUCK ON YOU is a totally enjoyable, sometimes off-color, always smile-inducing film. Check it out.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:25 PM

Something's Gotta Give

I guess technically this Nancy Meyers written and directed film would have to be considered a romantic comedy, but that doesn't really do it justice. There's a lot more going on here in this film that will most defintitely make you laugh, but it also has quite a few astute and stinging observations about the nature of relationships between older men and all women. If you've seen even one commercial for this film, you know the set up: Jack Nicholson's Harry Langer is dating the much younger Marin Barry (Amanda Peet). Harry is a legendary bachelor in New York City and best known for his taste in beautiful younger women. The two decide to spend a romantic weekend in her mother's house in the Hamptons, but much to their surprise, playwright mom Erica (Diane Keaton) and her best friend Zoe (Frances McDormand) have also decided to spend the weekend there. The four decide to be grown ups and share the house for the weekend. Harry and Marin haven't actually slept together, but upon their first attempt, Harry has a heart episode, landing him in the hospital under the care of doctor Julian (Keanu Reeves, a strange but effective casting choice).

Marin must return to the city but Harry has been ordered to stay in town so Dr. J can keep an eye on him. Erica and Harry seem to be designed to dislike each other, but unfortunately he must stay with her until the doctor clears him, so the two share the house for about a week. It just so happens that the doctor has a big crush on Erica, and the two start dating. On the home front, not surprisingly, as Harry and Erica start to talk and get to know each other, they fall for each other too. The plot's real twist comes when you find out that all of this only takes up half the film. It's the film's back half that's entirely unpredictable. Getting Erica and Harry in bed together the first time seems easy, keeping them together is the tough part. The best scenes in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE are, naturally, between Jack and Diane. There's one conversation during a beach-front walk that feels so natural and spontaneous that I refuse to believe it was scripted. And maybe for the first time in film, we get a real look at Nicholson as romantic, charming lead. It's difficult to believe that any woman watching this wouldn't feel a little attracted to her charisma. It's also great to see Keanu Reeves embrace his good looks and play something of a romantic lead himself (even if he is a bit wimpy compared to Jack). Myers the writer has a great ear for grown-folk conversation and a some insightful observations that alternate between humorous and painful. In all likelihood, you will also cry a couple times while watching this film. SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE is both total Hollywood love story and highly untraditional anti-Hollywood love story. Few avenues are left untraveled, and nothing feels tagged on to make us feel better. See the movie to see have the professionals do things.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:23 PM

December 01, 2003

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

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

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