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

January 09, 2004

The Company

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

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

Posted by sprokopy at 02:59 PM


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

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

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

Posted by sprokopy at 02:46 PM

December 18, 2003

The Cooler

Believers in luck--good and bad--seem to find that they believe in it a little more when they're in Las Vegas. Luck takes on a near-religious status in Vegas, so much so that (according to legend) casinos actually hire people who have proven bad luck to stand near winner patrons in the hopes that winners will become losers. The professional purveyors of bad luck are called coolers and the fantastic new film by virtually unknown director Wayne Dramer is called THE COOLER.

The loser's loser William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a former small time crook who double-crossed his partner Shelly Kaplow (Alex Baldwin channeling Robert De Niro's CASINO persona) many years ago, and is now paying him back by being a cooler for Shelly's off-the-strip casino, The Golden Shangri-Lah. Bernie, we are told, is the best in the business; nothing goes right in his life. He orders a cup of coffee, and the cream dispenser is always empty when he goes to use it. Then he meets a cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello from PERMANENT MIDNIGHT and AUTO FOCUS). There's a mixture of pity and curiosity in her eyes, and eventually the two fall in love. This being Bernie's world, complications naturally follow. First in the form of a slick Harvard business grad played by Ron Livingston, who thinks he knows how to update and revamp the casino's image, much to Shelly's resentment. Then comes Bernie's estrange son (Shawn Hatosy) and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren), who need cash in a hurry, but the vibe off these two is all wrong. Finally, there's a problem with Bernie himself. Now that he's in love with someone who loves him back, something in the universe is out of whack, and his powers of ill will toward gamblers seem to disappear. In anything, casino goers seem to have better luck when he's around. Shelly's not too happy about this either, and orders Natalie to leave town.

THE COOLER is a great mix of Vegas folklore, relationship film, character study, and morality tale, all mixed together with some wonderful actors in richly written roles. This is one of those great casinos that is for adults only. Baldwin delivers a quick speech to a hooker trying to generate business in his establishment that blew my mind because of its brush-off attitude and rapid-fire delivery. The people who wrote this film (including director Dramer) seem like they know what they're talking about, they listen to the lingo, observed behavior, they lived the live if only for a moment to inspire this film. Macy's performance isn't quite as pathetic as he can be in films; he's incredibly protective of his small piece of happiness and seems quite desperate to hold onto it. Not surprisingly, violence and death play a part in THE COOLER. It isn't pretty; sometimes it's just plain nasty. Having said that, Macy, Bello, and Baldwin turn in some of the strongest performances I've seen all year and probably deserve serious consideration for Oscar nominations.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:26 PM

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

Girl with a Pearl Earring

This is an easy film to review because very little happens, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Based on the popular novel by Tracy Chevalier about master painter Johannes Vermeer (played by the master actor of angst Colin Firth; serious has any actor played more characters in love with women below his character's standing than this guy?) and the maid (LOST IN TRANSLATION's Scarlett Johansson) who served as the model for one of his most famous paintings. The story speculates that Vermeer fell in love with the maid (although never acted on that feeling) much to his wife's disapproval. There are countless subplots in the film involving Vermeer's wicked children, his lecherous patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), the other servants, and a butcher's son played by 28 DAYS LATER's Cillian Murphy, but none of these are as interesting as the nearly wordless interplay between Firth and the stunningly expressive face of Johansson. Never has catching a glimpse of a woman's uncovered hair seen quite so erotic. And never has Colin Firth been so pent up and repressed as he is here.

Yes, the brief glimpse that first-time feature director Peter Webber gives us of Vermeer at work and his technique is fascinating, but the fact remains that next to nothing actually transpires here, and this may turn some people off to the film. It feels like everyone in this film is on the brink of exploding from repression. Vermeer's wife suspects him of all sorts of indiscretions, although he hasn't done anything but sin in his heart. So little goes on in the household that the servant gossip about even the smallest out-of-the-ordinary events. GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING might be the most tension-filled movie I've seen this year that didn't result in some explosion or bloody death. The film is an excellent chamber piece, beautifully photographed, with a handful of perfectly understated performances. What more do you need? I have no idea whether any of this took place in the Vermeer house, but the film is so convincing that in my mind, this is exactly what happened. It opens wide this Christmas.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:27 PM

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

Big Fish

Director Tim Burton was beginning to worry me. Not since 1994's ED WOOD has he done a really solid piece of work that I could whole heartedly recommend to pretty much everyone. MARS ATTACKS! is junkie, SLEEPY HOLLOW was pretty good but mostly due to Johnny Depp's bizarre performance, and PLANET OF THE APES was a surprisingly so-so Hollywood actioner that was extremely easy to forget five minutes after it had ended. BIG FISH may surprise people, particularly Burton's oldest fans who remember just how twisted (BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN) this guy can get. BIG FISH is shockingly normal. The film it most reminded me of in terms of its way of telling a story was FORREST GUMP. Only in this film, the lead character, Edward Bloom (played as an older man by Albert Finney and played younger in flashbacks by Ewan McGregor), isn't taking part in world events; he is the event, at least the way he tells the story.

I'm not spoiling anything by saying that Finney's Bloom is a dying man, estranged from his only son William (Billy Crudup), because William is sick to death of Edward's tall tales. There isn't a story you, can come up with that Edward can't top. He has elaborate concoctions about the war, about his days working in the circus, about falling in love with his eventual wife, Sandy (old: Jessica Lange; young: Alison Lohman), and about his time marketing freaks (giants, conjoined twins) into top-notch entertainment acts. He has boyhood tales of meeting a witch and seeing how he is going to die. These are great stories, and McGregor portrays the younger Edward as a man who simply accepts these strange occurrences in his life with a dignified elegance. He's the most polite man you could ever meet, and McGregor sells his southern accent with much zeal. It's fairly obvious that Burton had the most fun filming the scenes at the circus (with ringmaster Danny Devito) than, say, the sequence in the world's most perfect town, which basically doesn't go anywhere. Although it's in these scenes that we meet a famous writer named Norther Winslow played by Steve Buscemi, so it's not so bad.

As much fun as I had watching the adventures of Edward Bloom, I could kind of tell where things were leading. One way or the other, we would discover that whether Edward's stories were really fiction or not. But things don't quite play out that way. William does a little investigating and discovers a mysterious woman named Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter). Was she Edward's mistress? I'm not telling. But I will say that the scenes with Bonham Carter are the ones that finally pulled me in emotionally to BIG FISH. I actually started caring with my heart about Edward's fate and his believability. I cared about whether the relationship with his son gets mended. There are also some sweet scenes between Finney and Lange that got to me. These moments with the female leads are the ones that elevated BIG FISH in my mind, not only in comparison to Burton's other recent films, but also compared to much of what is in theatres now. BIG FISH is Burton's most emotionally satisfying film since EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and it verifies that his abilities as a compelling storyteller have not abandoned him; they just weren't be serviced with great material. It's nice to see Burton stretch his wings beyond what's expected of him every once and a while. The film opens around the country on Christmas day.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:21 PM

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


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