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

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 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

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

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