January 19, 2004

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 01, 2003


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