This is the movie review arena of Dave Mitchell and Trevor Taylor. We are fed up with stupid critics who pick the movies that nobody goes to watch. (BEWARE: PLOT-DETAILS/SPOILERS INCLUDED!!!)

Friday, February 06, 2004

Lost In Translation (R): contains sexual content

How do you define infidelity? Is it simply having sex with someone who is not your spouse? Or do you consider infidelity to be as much about emotional unfaithfulness as physical?

This was the question that refused to leave my mind as I watched Sofia Coppola's highly (and in most cases, deservingly) praised sophomore directing effort. But I will leave off this question for the moment and look at the film itself.

Lost in Translation follows the story of two Americans from different, but loosely related backgrounds who meet each other while in Japan. Bob (portrayed by the outstanding Bill Murray) is a formerly popular movie actor, whose star seems to have faded. Instead of "doing a play somewhere", he is in Tokyo filming endorsement ads for whiskey. We are clued in on the fact that his marriage has become virtually loveless and more a thing of numb habit than actual love. His phone conversations throughout the film demonstrate this, as well as his descriptions of his relationship with his wife that he shares with the film's other lead. He feels like his wife no longer needs him, and has stopped truly caring for him.

The other lead is the equally outstanding (and incredibly attractive) Scarlett Johannson, who plays Charlotte, a Yale-educated loner married to a loving but busy celebrity photographer (Giovanni Ribisi). Charlotte is "married to the industry" so to speak, but tries desperately to keep celebrity types at arm's length. She spends the entire film searching for meaning, friendship, and community. Her husband is so busy with work that she spends most of her time alone in the hotel room, staring out the window overlooking the Tokyo skyline.

It's hard to describe either of these characters. They both have a small degree of condescention for the rest of the world, but even more than that, they seem to hunger for some sort of real feeling and connection. So when they meet, incidentally at first, then purposefully, they find they have this mutual search for honest feeling, which is the basis for their friendship.

Coppola's approach to their relationship is unusual, by normal Hollywood standards. One would normally assume that the content description "sexual content" refers to the leads' love affair, but this is not the case. The most sexually intimate that Bob and Charlotte are is their kiss goodbye at the end of the film. There are two scenes of overt sexuality in the film where Bob is present, and he is clearly uncomfortable with both. (Which really drives home the difference between sexuality and intimacy, when you think about it. Bob wasn't looking for sex; he was looking for someone to share his heart with.)

Basic synopsis of the plot: Two strangers meet, romp around Tokyo, enjoy each other's company, share personal feelings and thoughts about life, then go their seperate ways. It's like the film Before Sunrise, except that Bob and Charlotte know they will never see each other again. (At least as far as I can tell.)

What I liked about the movie:
--Visually gorgeous. Great camera work. Excellent contrasts of motion and stillness.
--The soundtrack was amazing.
--Murray and Johannson are amazing, and have great chemistry. Murray should get the Oscar for this incredibly subtle, layered performance.
--The story is unconventional, and is as concerned with the character's inner journey as with progressing the narrative. Probably more concerned with inner journey, even.

What I had a problem with:
--The overtly sexual scenes. One concerns a prostitute that is sent to Bob by the company he is in town to endorse. She's kinda freaky, and the scene is both funny and very uncomfortable. The other scene is when Bob and Charlotte try to meet some of her local friends at a club. *That* kind of club. Again, Bob is incredibly uncomfortable, and so am I. I understand the purpose of the scenes, but I think the effect could have been gained without actual nudity being used.
--The marginalization of the spouses. Although, again, I understand the purpose of doing this, I still don't like it. Bob's wife is rather shrewish, and is only a footnote to the story. No, that's not true, but sometimes she seems that way. And Charlotte's husband, while flawed, is still apparently in love with her, but conveniently has to travel to another part of Japan for a four-day photo shoot, so he seems to disappear from her thoughts.

Actually, it's not entirely true. The spouses are there throughout the story, like ghosts. Whenever Bob and Charlotte are alone, and the "Tension" is there, there is always the thought of their respective spouses holding them back from doing what you expect them to eventually do. And this is why the pigeonholing of the spouses is bearable for me. Because, as I said earlier, Bob and Charlotte aren't looking for sex. They're looking for someone to listen to them, care about what they have to say. Someone who will lend them a shoulder to lean/cry on, and will accept them for their flaws. Theirs is a search for emotional intimacy.

Which brings me back to the first question: does being faithful to your spouse extend to the emotions as well as the body? And my personal feeling on this is, yes absolutely. When a married man grows to love a woman who is not his wife, his heart is being unfaithful. Any sexual intimacy after that is merely the end result of the first infidelity.

Because I feel so strongly about this, I never could feel at ease about this film. No matter how much part of me cheered for the "couple", I knew that, from my personal perspective, he was cheating on his wife and she on her husband. And no matter how awful and loveless the marriages become, that's not cool at all.

An interesting scene, when thinking about the question of emotional intimacy and attachment, is after Charlotte learns that Bob slept with the hotel lounge singer (thanks to too much alcohol). They share a silent and anguished lunch, peppered with sharp sarcastic remarks and lots of angry looks. Clearly, Charlotte feels betrayed by Bob's drunken filandering. But why does she feels this way? Becuase on some level, she feels like Bob cheated on her. There was a connection there. But, being "the other woman" (in a sense), Charlotte couldn't say anything about it. When they make up later, they never refer to the situation in these terms, however. The closest they get is "that was an awful lunch."

To be fair, they do bring up their spouses in conversation, and there are a few scenes that really seem to indicate that they each love their spouses (even though it seems that only Charlotte's really loves her back).

In the end, there is no real resolution, as Hollywood normally defines it. Bob has to go back home (to his daughter's recital), and Charlotte has to stay. She invites him to stay too, but they both know he can't. He finds her one last time, and whispers something in her ear that we can't hear. We never know what his last words to her are, and in a way, that's the point of the movie. Bob and Charlotte find in each other someone to whom they can share their secret selves, and we as the audience are simply observers, as the Relevant Magazine review said.

This is a beautifully-shot and incredibly-acted film, with a fantastic soundtrack. But I can't whole-heartedly embrace it. However, while I didn't become comfortable enough to "enjoy" the film, I do appreciate its power and loveliness.

As such, it's hard to rate. It is too good to "walk out" on, but too murky to "rock on" with. A third category is needed. One that acknowledges the parts that work, while not neglecting the things that don't.

RATING: "Think it through."

(P.S. I think this rating would apply to one of my earliest reviews also, "The Cider House Rules." To give you a reference point.)

Monday, February 02, 2004

Video Capsule Reviews

The Ninth Gate (R): contains lots of badness, and not the good kind

I'll admit that I rented this pile and actually watched it all the way through. It kept me moderately interested, for a few reasons:
--Johnny Depp as a book expert
--the entire plot revolved around antique/rare books
--I really didn't know how they would resolve it all

Turns out, they didn't really.

I won't go into too much detail, because the film doesn't deserve it. I should have stayed away, just based on the premise (rare book can conjure up the Prince of Darkness???), but fool of a Took that I am, I plunged on.

And now I regret it.

Besides being rather perverse, and practically a celebration of Satan worship, it's also kinda lame, and a premise that had interesting elements winds up being dull dull dull. I kept hanging on to catch a glimpse of the Grand Imp himself, but he never showed. The best I got was some naked chick who is apparently the Whore of Babylon from Revelation. I don't know. This pile is wretched, awful, and a horrible mistake on my part.

The sacrifices I make for you people.

RATING: "Don't walk out, RUN OUT, through as many gates as you can!!!"


Love Liza (R): contains pervasive drug use, brief nudity, language

One of my favorite character actors is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In this film, he plays a computer programmer who is struggling to understand his wife's unexpected suicide. He finds a suicide note in a sealed envelope under his pillow, and spends the rest of the movie trying not to read it. In the process, he tries to ease his emotional pain by becoming addicted to the middle-school drug of choice--gas fumes. Yes, that's right, P.S. Hoffman becomes a "huffer."

This sounds stupid, yes, and on some levels, it is absurd. But it is also very very sad. This film is the directorial debut of Todd Louiso, veteran of stage and screen (dude, it's Dick from High Fidelity!!!), and Louiso really sees this as a character study. The story of a man who falls apart, and loses every ounce of dignity he has.

Kathy Bates plays Hoffman's mother-in-law, who gives a decent performance, but is really marginalized by the focus on Hoffman's deep pain. This pain is portrayed through silence and huffing fumes.

Sorry. I'm trying to be serious. I probably would have been more impatient with this film, if I hadn't just finished Seabiscuit and was craving some catharsis.

Hoffman's search for a better high leads him to find fuel for RC airplanes, and in order to justify buying all the fuel, he has to get a plane to go with it. This eventually leads him to meeting fellow "RC enthusiasts", and he struggles to maintain the charade.

This is a tough film to watch, because, for all his faults, you really empathize with Hoffman. And you get to see the private hell of addiction, much as you do in Nicholas Cage's performance in "Leaving Las Vegas." [In fact, there is a comparison blurb on the box cover of Love Liza. Maybe that's where i got the comparison. Grrr.] The last twenty minutes are just tough, as you helplessly watch Hoffman run into each new trainwreck, getting caught in his own web of deceit and falling apart. In the end, he loses everything. And the letter, which he hopes will give him meaning and understanding and some sense of peace, leaves him empty and offers no real comfort.

This is just a depressing film. Through and through. But if you are looking for depressing movies, or good character study material, this is a good option.

(Parents' note: The only time Liza is seen is in flashback, and, yes, she's the "brief nudity." But it's nothing overtly sexual, which is a nice change.)

RATING: "Rock on sadly, but quit sniffing that--it'll get you high."


SNEAK PREVIEW: Next week, look for "Lost in Translation", "Miracle", and maybe some classic films. Mixing it up a bit, eh?
Better Than Critics Comeback Tour 2004

Back and better than ever, baby. Let's do this.

Seabiscuit(PG-13): contains language, mild violence, a suggestive scene

I was really hard on this movie when the Academy Awards were announced. Because I considered it "the stupid horse movie" without having seen it.

Well, I've seen it. It was entertaining. But it's not worthy of the great praise it's being given.

The story concerns the career of Red Pollard, the angry young man who becomes an angry half-blind young jockey riding an angry young horse. Okay, that's oversimplification. How about this?

The film knows that it's supposed to be a "tear-jerker" so it tries too early to squeeze some tears out of the audience. Young Red is all but sold into slavery by his starving Dust Bowl parents, to a man who wants to make the boy a jockey, and ends up being physically abusive to him. I tried really hard to feel something, but it was just too quick, too soon. I hadn't got to know the character at all. Another boy is killed in a car-wreck, which is tragic, yes, but so manipulative. Of course you're supposed to cry when kids die. [There was a recent Slate article about the use of dead children to shock audiences in recent films. Hmmm...] But you don't know anything about this kid, other than that he reads Flash Gordon and is the only child of Jeff Bridges' character. Then, Bridges' wife leaves him, ostensibly because of the child's death, though it could be because the Great Depression has made Bridges' plans of eternal wealth vanish. They're not the Joad family, by any stretch, but his plans of selling high-priced racecars vanishes. So then Bridges is sad. And he goes to Mexico, meets a girl, and marries her. Pretty much as abruptly as I've described it. There is another sub-plot about a cowboy played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, whose life is completely destroyed by the mechanized march of "progress" that devoured the romantic Old West. Of course, you get one scene of Cowboy Cooper riding across the open range, only to find a barbed wire fence, which he studies as if it were as foreign as DSL cable. Then, the next scene in this plot is Hobo Cooper, riding the rails westward.

Of course, we can't go into any of these stories in great detail, and realistically tell these stories. It is, after all, called "Seabiscuit" and not "The Amazing Adventures of the Sad Divorced Childless Former Car Salesman and the Ex-Cowboy Whose Life Was Destroyed by Westward Industrial Expansion, and Oh Yeah, There's Also A Child Slave Who Races Horses". The director, who's best known for the under-appreciated "Pleasantville", doesn't believe that these stories can be told at all, more than a few token scenes to "establish character motivation."

Then there is the trite movie themes inserted into the dialogue. "You can't throw away a life just because they're a little banged up." Ah yes, grasshoppa, you hear this at least three times. And their eyes meet in a "meaningful" moment. Hmmm... reminds me of another Tobey Maguire movie where the theme is beaten to death in the script. ("With great power comes..." what, anyone?)

I know, I'm cynical. But I really wanted to feel something during this movie, and the dramatic moments were too shallow to really get me.

Also, the voiceover dialogue was supposed to give historical context to all of the action of the movie, but it did more to pull me out of the story, than to keep me grounded in it. The only time it worked for me was during the race when there was no voice-over dialogue, just the still picture of the people standing, listening to the race on the car radio. That was a nice effect.

All this is not to say I wasn't entertained, cuz I was (so back off, Maximus). The racing scenes were exciting. The big race against the national champ horse was very exciting. The final race had the kind of heart-in-my-throat sports-movie thrill I get with the better sports movies. I got caught up in it. But when the movie tried to be sentimental and dramatic, it fell flat, because it was written flatly. The quote Red uses when the betrayal is revealed is totally out of character, out of the moment. And yet, we are supposed to accept it, to go, "Oh, yeah, cuz his father made him quote classical literature as a child." If it had come up more often in his dialogue, it would have been more natural to hear it. (Okay, okay, there was the Shakespeare quote to the reporters, but that's not enough for me, I guess.)

The thing I liked most was Jeff Bridges' character portrayal. It wasn't great, but it was the *most* believable. And the story of the fellow jockey who apparently became his friend somewhere, though I couldn't figure out where--that was kinda neat.

Maybe I'm just being too hard on this film. In fact, I'm sure I am, but it's only because I wanted more meat on the bone for my two and a half hours of viewing. In the end, as Red would probably say out of nowhere, it was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Or maybe just a little. But not much.

Like the eponymous equine, this film starts out slow, doesn't really impress through the first three turns, and then rallies in the home stretch. But crossing the Oscar finish line ahead of the "King"? Hardly. Jackson's epic wins by much more than a nose.

RATING: "Rock on, I suppose, because you can't throw a whole movie away, just because it's banged up a bit."

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