Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Film Review | Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost and Found
by Thomas Delapa

Read between the lines in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and you’ll discover a tender mood piece about the lost and dislocated feelings that can envelop you as a stranger in a strange land.

Back in 2000, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola made an auspicious directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides. Translation is similar only in the younger Coppola’s interest in capturing life’s small, fleeting moments–the times spent blankly gazing out the window, lying awake at night or having a drink alone at a hotel bar.

You could say that Coppola’s precious film is her version of The Royal Tenenbaums. In the same way that Wes Anderson wrote and directed Tenenbaums as a custom vehicle for Gene Hackman, so is Bill Murray (essentially as Bill Murray) the center of Coppola’s attentions. As Murray has aged, the former farceur has acquired a melancholy depth that stands him apart from his comic contemporaries.

Murray plays Bill Harris, a Hollywood star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial for Japanese TV. (Japan has lured many an American and British celebrity to shoot commercials there, primarily those who refuse to do the same in their own countries.)

Married with children, Harris has come alone to Tokyo, a Blade Runner-like monstropolis teeming with shimmering neon, skyscrapers and as many karaoke clubs as noodle bars. The city itself is the other Coppola preoccupation, and it’s been beautifully photographed by Lance Acord to stress its gaudily postmodern amalgamation of east and west.

The other dislocated principal is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young New Yorker who’s tagged along on a work trip with her distracted photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Blessed with a face that’s wholesomely serene and inquisitive at the same time, Johansson has joined the front rank of promising screen actresses.

After a series of close encounters, Bill and Charlotte strike up an unlikely friendship that’s somewhere between platonic and romantic. That may sound weird given the age difference, but Coppola and her leads handle the material with a maximum of delicacy and diffidence.

Coppola leans on mood to an extreme to engage her story. She tugs at that feeling of weightlessness you get when you’re in a foreign country, the sense of discovery but also the solitude and the strangeness. The experience is exaggerated in a city like Tokyo, where consumerist technology has been embraced with all the reckless enthusiasm of a child tearing open Christmas gifts.

Working from her own script, Coppola prods her camera and her cast to be tourists themselves. She skips into sushi bars, dodges pedestrians in busy thoroughfares and follows Murray and Johansson as they run together down streets like kids. As she eavesdrops on a noisy game parlor where one youth obliviously bangs away on an electric guitar, Coppola’s documentary instinct may be finer than her dramatic one.

Lost in Translation is a jangly comedy of manners about two people, lost and alone in a strange city, who discover each other. They have little in common, yet they accomplish writer E.M. Forster’s dictum to "only connect." In one gorgeous sequence, Bill and Charlotte go out for a night on the town, stopping to sing a couple of karaoke songs in a high-rise bar. Mimicking his Saturday Night Live lounge act, Murray mouths Elvis Costello’s "What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding," followed by Johansson pretending on a Pretenders song. The plot evaporates like morning mist on a summer window, but what’s left is a simple epiphany. Or in Japanese terms, it’s mono no aware–the transience of things.

Capitalizing on Murray’s famous deadpan double takes, Coppola adds a dash of comedy. But it’s mood that carries this movie, not mirth. In any language, Lost in Translation means much more as estranged feelings than as words.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 09/25/03

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Remembering Favorite Actors: Wally Cox

DVD Review:

“Mister Peepers” (S’More Entertainment) $39.99 One of the first hit sitcoms of television, 1952-1955’s “Mister Peepers,” also holds up as one of the best, thanks to the late, great Wally Cox’s sly, goofy and – a word not often used in reviews of sitcoms anymore – humane performance as the young and mild-mannered new science teacher at a Midwestern high school. Not that the shows were low-key – Cox’s Robinson Peepers had a nose for weird trouble. In one episode collected here, he gets his hand stuck inside a halibut! Today, Cox reminds one a lot of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker – they have the exact same combination of shyness and sweetness. This four-DVD set, licensed from UCLA Film & Television Archive, collects the first 26 episodes of the Emmy-nominated series. Extras include a Dom DeLuise interview about Cox as well as his appearance on “Laugh-In” in the late 1960s. -- Steven Rosen

(note: Since this story ran in 2006, there's actually been a second volume released, also by S'More.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Film Review | An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Truth or Consequences

by Thomas Delapa

Admittedly, it's a little daunting to interview a man who, for a brief, shining moment, was the president-elect of the United States.

Though it would easily suit him, no one played "Hail to the Chief" when Al Gore sauntered into Denver's Hotel Teatro, dressed in casual black blazer and open collar. Warm, engaging and forthright, Gore was in town to publicize An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary based on his one-man multimedia show that turns up the heat on the global-warming debate.

Since the debacle of the 2000 presidential election, Gore has turned his attention to putting the Earth first. An environmental advocate since his days in Congress, the former Tennessee senator and Clinton vice president has delivered his traveling presentation hundreds of times to audiences around the globe. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth is now conveniently in theaters in most U.S. cities.

Not simply passionate about the project, Gore has an ardent hope that audiences will see global warming as the watershed issue of our time, superseding politics.

"The thing that's most gratifying to me is that audiences tell us over and over that they don't see the film as political," says Gore. "Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives have come out of the movie saying that they were entertained, but also transformed, and they want to be part of the solution. I love that, because that's the whole point of the film and the [accompanying] book."

Gore is emphatic in his desire that the American public view global warming as a "moral issue," not unlike the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"The movie will open at the exact moment in time when millions of people in this country are feeling, maybe for the first time, a sense of urgency about the climate crisis," he says.

In a timely coincidence, the film also opens at the onset of the Gulf Coast hurricane season. Last year's devastating season—topped by the apocalyptic wrath of Hurricane Katrina—may only be the tip of the iceberg if global climate change isn't averted.

"For the first time in history, they had to go to the Greek alphabet... they actually ran out of names for the hurricanes, there were so many. Not only that," says Gore, "in my part of the country, we broke an all-time record for tornadoes."

The consensus among climatologists is that the ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gases is the main culprit behind rising global temperatures, triggering extreme weather patterns. In Gore's foreboding film presentation, he clicks off fact after fact, amply supported by pictures that not only tell a thousand words, but should come with exclamation points. Among them: 2005 was the warmest year on record since atmospheric temperatures have been measured; the 10 hottest years on record have all been since 1990; since 1978, the Arctic sea ice has shrunk by about 9 percent per decade.

Clearly the heat is on, though there is some question whether the rise is an aberration. In the film, Gore points to a super-sized graph that reveals a shocking correspondence between global temperatures and the production of greenhouse gases—mainly a byproduct of automobiles and coal-fired power plants.

Some might say that the rise in temperatures has gone to peoples' heads—and they're trying to cool off by burying them in the sand. What automobile-addicted Americans, in particular, have been slow to realize is the nexus of human behavior and the Earth.

"We can't seem to imagine that we as humans can have a lasting effect on the environment. The new reality is that we've slowly transformed our relationship to the Earth, both because of our advanced technologies and overpopulation," he says.

Gore is only restating established fact when he brings up the Bush administration's policy of downplaying the consequences of global warming—even to the point of censoring the findings of government's own scientists. The White House has found allies in "a small but well-funded group of companies that made a decision to reinforce scientific uncertainties in order to paralyze political action, even if it means intentionally confusing people."

At least in part, Americans have warmed to the idea that something must be done on a grand scale.

"People are hearing a louder voice from Mother Nature, and they're saying to themselves, 'This has to change and we have to force the change,'" says Gore.

Gore's Spock-like mastery of facts and figures in support of his case is impressive, whether citing the 230 U.S. cities that have independently ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming (which Gore helped develop) or the 85 evangelical ministers who've broken with the Bush White House position on the issue.

But what's most impressive about Gore isn't his lawyerly recall. It's the genuine zeal and patriotic passion that he brings to his cause. Even after the fishy fiasco of the 2000 presidential election—enough to sour anyone on our democratic process—this ecological Paul Revere still believes in the American public's willingness to answer the call.

"As Winston Churchill once said, 'The American people generally do the right thing, after first exhausting all the alternatives,'" he says.

Flashing a glimmer of folksy charm, Gore wryly adds, "Maybe that's why I'm an optimist. We've just about run out of alternatives."

Gore's demeanor toughens when I edge him into a wider discussion of the Bush administration policies.

"Imagine," he says, "if after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush hadn't made such a horrible mistake by diverting away from bin Laden to Iraq, and instead had launched an all-out effort to convince the American people that we can no longer be dependent on foreign oil."

With that, Gore's voice tails off, "Instead we took another course."

Coming from the man and public servant who won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential race, Gore's rueful words couldn't help but remind me of what abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier once said: "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'"

For information on global warming, go to

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 06/08/06

An Inconvenient Truth won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why Do They Make Movies like "Battle: Los Angeles"?

Apocalypse Again
Battle: LA is the kind of movie 9/11 was supposed to make unthinkable

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 3-16-11)
. . . . . . .

Back in 2003, I interviewed director Peter Weir on the occasion of his newest film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. That was, all in all, a good action/adventure movie. Based on a well-regarded Patrick O’Brian novel about British Royal Navy life and set on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, it was rooted in history, had an excitingly palpable sense of oceanic journey, was free of excessively gratuitous mayhem and had involving, complex characters played by such good actors as Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany.

Best of all, it didn’t ask viewers to suspend their intelligence in order to get some thrills — it appealed to something other than the latent human desire to see things explode and humans shot up on the big screen. In other words, it wasn’t Independence Day, Armageddon, Con Air, Godzilla, Deep Impact, Twister, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard sequels, True Lies, et al ad nauseam.

Weir explained to me how he managed to make such an unfashionable film. He and John Collee had spent a full year working on the script, beginning in August 2000.

“Then everything was put on hold because of the tragedy of Sept. 11 (2001),” he said. “It wasn’t until later in September that we kind of staggered back to work that they decided to go ahead. I think they had canceled all the movies about terrorists but were looking for an action/adventure thing, so suddenly this became a plum.”

We tend to forget now that Hollywood’s 9/11 guilt — the Onion famously compared the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to a “bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie” — produced a cease-fire on using CGI to churn out $100 million-plus films depicting mass urban destruction. Even Bruckheimer, the chief culprit of such films, decided to turn to more benign movie fantasies like Pirates of the Caribbean (and crime series for TV).

Alas, while hardly a flop, Master and Commander didn’t earn the kind of money domestically ($94 million) to make Hollywood clamor for more. And, slowly but steadily, with time we’ve been seeing a return to the pre-9/11 urban-destruction extravaganzas.

The new Battle: Los Angeles is a prime example.

Many of these movies have been disguised as comic-book fantasies (Dark Knight) to avoid being pegged as exploitation of history; Day After Tomorrow and 2012 by Roland Emmerich (the pre-9/11 Independence Day) have been floated as ecological cautionary tales. (A low-budget 2006 indie film called Right at Your Door imagined a terrorist attack on L.A., and barely got released for going there.)

In Battle: Los Angeles, Aaron Eckhart leads a small contingent of badly outnumbered Marines through one ear-blasting, gritty firefight after another with aliens who have wiped out Santa Monica and are moving eastward toward downtown L.A., killing all humans in their way. We follow them on their interminable journey to survive and, maybe, save America.

The story is kept barebones to heighten the action — the movie aims to put you in the middle of a war, rather that to be about a war. The upside of that, I suppose, is it heightens the ultra-realism, as do all the shaky camera movements and terse, minimalist dialogue. The downside is that it drains the film of any ideas.

There are some real-world touches. The Marines are combat veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan; the aliens use drone planes for air attacks. This had me wondering for awhile if the film’s director, Jonathan Liebesman, and writer, Christopher Bertolini, meant it as metaphor for civilian casualties in our overseas wars — see how it feels when it happens to you! But, if so, it’s way unarticulated (as opposed to a “realistic” 2009 film about aliens amongst us that pronouncedly read as a commentary on immigration and apartheid, the South African District 9).

By the way, there’s an honorable tradition of science fiction trying to scare us with end-of-the-world scenarios. Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds — presented as news bulletins — tapped our fears about the Depression and European war threats. A whole slew of 1950s monster movies got at our fear of nuclear war or, in the great Invasion of the Body Snatchers, post-war domestic conformity. To some extent, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds was an attempt to respond to post-9/11 anxieties, although he overdid it with the mayhem and succumbed to melodrama.

Battle: Los Angeles isn’t bad because of its science-fiction element — that’s what’s good about it. It’s bad because it emulates two recent war films that, while praised at the time (by me, among others), in retrospect can be seen to have had a detrimental influence on the art of cinema: 2001’s Black Hawk Down and Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan.

While Saving Private Ryan realistically shows the D-Day invasion no-holds-barred (“blood” splatters on the camera lens), Spielberg then goes on to recreate another horrific battle, as if he can’t get enough. Black Hawk Down, produced by Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, strips away all the complex background of U.S. involvement in Somalia and focuses solely on the struggle by U.S. soldiers to survive an attack.

If these films’ rationale was to make us civilians feel the hell of what our soldiers actually went through, they also allowed us to get off on it by indulging in excess. They created a formula. These films seemed to enjoy staging battles for battles’ sake.

And so we have Battle: Los Angeles. It led the box office last weekend with $36 million. I can’t imagine it will do well for very long — it’s arduously repetitive in a Black Hawk Down way, without even the benefit of truth as an excuse.

Moreover, current events have quickly overtaken it — watching the misery and horror produced by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan takes the pleasure out of viewing something similar in the name of entertainment.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Film Review | The Adjustment Bureau

Hold on to Your Hats

by Thomas Delapa

Science fiction fans, heed the warning: Whatever you do, don’t confuse The Adjustment Bureau with Blade Runner. Though both films evolved from Philip K. Dick stories, only the now-classic Blade Runner is the real deal. Now showing (likely briefly), The Adjustment Bureau is but a sci-fi replicant, and a dull, maladjusted one at that.

A Bourne Identity without an identity, The Matrix without any cool tricks, Bureau features a hollow, bottom-drawer performance by Matt Damon. He plays David Norris, a budding, post-partisan U.S. Senate candidate from New York who has a close encounter with a dapper band of supernatural conspirators. Do we humans have free will, or are we simply meat puppets blind to the strings of predestined fate?

Like last year’s Inception, this is one of those sci-fi fantasies that is constantly explaining—and breaking—its own rules, partly to gloss over the filmmakers’ own inability to make sense of them. To his befuddled consternation, David discovers that his life is rigged, presided over by a shadowy bunch of fedora-clad men in black assigned to make sure he fatefully follows the Big Picture. If humans—or at least good-looking elites like Damon—don’t follow the plan, the Adjusters step in and press the reset button. God forbid, don’t call these guys guardian angels; they’re secularized “case officers.”

Trouble is, David obstinately doesn’t get it. Like Toto, he accidentally sneaks a peak behind the curtain, and sees Richardson (Mad Men’s John Slattery) and the Adjusters at work futzing with the future. David truly goes “off plan” when he insists on chasing after a pretty ballerina, Elise (Emily Blunt), whom he meets by chance—maybe—and is convinced is his soul-mate.

Though writer/director George Nolfi transparently calibrates the film with wistful themes of true love and noble sacrifice, the chemistry between Blunt and Damon hardly registers on the molecular scale. Most in the sketchy cast act like stick figures, mouthing wooden dialogue that sounds like something out of a dim Star Trek episode. Only Terence Stamp, as an ominous high-level Adjuster, raises the stakes, but he’s a momentary blip amidst the low-grade storytelling.

Nolfi’s silly finale might be subtitled “Run for Your Wife,” as Damon makes a mad, marathon dash through the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan, sporting one of those dopey fedoras. He first must rescue the fatally flabbergasted Elise, as well as find a way to outrun his fate.

Hollywood marketing plans to the contrary, I predict that most human audiences will exercise their free will and walk away from the pedestrian Adjustment Bureau.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Some Post-Oscar Thoughts on "The King's Speech" versus "The Social Network"

By Steven Rosen

While The King's Speech" won an Oscar for David Seidler's original screenplay and "The Social Network" won for Aaron Sorkin's adapted screenplay, the differences in their approaches to writing may point out why "Speech" won a Best Picture Oscar at "Network's" expense.

Sorkin's screenplay is smart, insightful and funny in many ways -- in providing character insight, in showing how Harvard is the incubator of new trends (and leadership) that will soon change America, in providing his story with suspense by making it a courtroom drama. But one thing he doesn't do especially well is show in methodical detail how Facebook came into being technologically. Showing the process is beyond his ability to satisfactorily dramatize -- or, maybe, even fully understand. Plus, it could be deadly boring -- guys at computers for hours on end.

To a younger audience already familiar with Facebook, that doesn't matter -- they accept its invention/creation as a given, as part of their lives, and don't ask the film to "show me." Like the wheel. But maybe an older audience finds that missing.

By comparison, Seider's screenplay for "The King's Speech" is very much about the step-by-step process by which Lionel Logue teaches King George VI to control his stutter. It is about a problem resolved. We learn from it.

Movies don't often teach us in detail about how people work -- and how they solve important problems related to their work. They're more about fantasy, adventure, conflict (often with guns), melodrama...or, conversely, about probing a character's mind and feelings for psychological. "The King's Speech" framed its problem-solving in a setting filled with conflict-tinged melodrama, but it never ducked a detailed, well-dramatized explanation of how the King learned to control his stutter.

Maybe that's the edge that helped it win Best Picture from an Academy that has many older members.

Film Review | The Queen (2006)

Royal Flush

by Thomas Delapa

All hail Helen Mirren in The Queen. As Queen Elizabeth II, Mirren gives a commanding performance that cries out for an Oscar, if not a star-studded crown.

In director Stephen Frears' uncommonly fine docudrama, we're transported to the court of the Queen of England in 1997, during the upheaval surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Playing opposite the queen as loyal foil is Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the newly elected Labor Prime Minister.

Mixing People magazine and Shakespearean people, Peter Morgan's juicy script aims to please, but it does so with appropriate pomp and circumstance. Bows and curtsies are in order for Frears' superbly directed cast, from Mirren and Sheen to American actor James Cromwell as Prince Phillip and Helen McCrory as Blair's cheeky wife, Cherie.

Frears begins his stately procession in May 1997 with the election of "Just call me Tony" Blair and his gingerly arrival at Balmoral Castle to receive the official blessing of the queen. Though the queen views her role in a constitutional monarchy as one to "advise and warn" the government, the events of the subsequent months flip the positions. With the shocking, paparazzi-caused death of Diana in a Paris auto accident, it is the House of Windsor that teeters on the brink of collapse. Following the 1996 divorce of Diana from Prince Charles, the royal family closed ranks, treating the former Princess of Wales like a pauper. Cherie Blair is more blunt: The queen "hated her guts."

If the clash between old and new is at the gilded heart of Frears' drama, Mirren provides its blue-blooded pulse. Never just an impersonation—though Mirren does that with aplomb—her performance grants the queen a heart and soul, however rooted they are in the musty Victorian era. Appalled at the public outpouring of grief at the death of the "peoples' princess," the queen is assuredly not amused. Leading with her stiff upper lip in the Brit tradition, the queen insists that Diana be mourned "quietly, with dignity."

Secluded at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the royal family goes into a siege mode befitting Macbeth at Dunsinane. Prince Philip, fuming with snobbish disdain toward his people, would rather be hunting. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), acutely aware of his sinking image, timidly makes requests of his mum to honor Diana in death.

Considering the princely exchanges between Mirren and Sheen (who previously played Blair on British TV), The Queen ascends to greatness in its quietest moments. In one of Morgan's invented scenes, Elizabeth is dumbstruck by the sight of a regal 14-point stag on her estate. That sobering moment is bettered by the queen's humbling trip to Diana's former palace, as a bow to public outcry. In both scenes, the silence evokes a touching sense of majesty.

Ultimately, it is Blair, not the queen, who provides the London bridge between modernity and tradition. Initially, he brashly sees the queen as a dinosaur, fit only for a wax museum. But it is Blair who brilliantly maneuvers his queen into a face-saving move that may have also saved the monarchy from dissolution. Blair's compromise perhaps gives an insight into his rash (some say, toady) expedience vis-a-vis his decision to ally with America in the Iraq War.

Given Frears' previous populist-minded films (like Dirty Pretty Things), it's not surprising that he'd paint an unflattering portrait of the royal family. But with Dame Helen on the throne in The Queen, one thing is for sure: She rules.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 10/19/06